The Carolingian Frontier II: groups and identities on all the edges

Putting coins aside for at least one post, I return to the way I spent roughly this time last year, i.  at conferences and in particular at The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which I started writing about a couple of posts ago. Resuming our tale on the 5th July, had you been in the JCR TV Room of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge at 9 o’clock in the morning you would have found none other than me, leading off a session with a paper called “‘Completely Detached from the Kingdom of the Franks’? Political Identity in Catalonia in the Very Late Carolingian Era”. As you might expect, I don’t have notes on this,but I can give you the abstract and you can always ask for more.

The very last years of Carolingian rule in the West have been seen as decisive for the separation of the area that is now Catalonia from the larger West Frankish kingdom whence it had its origins as a political entity: between the sack of Barcelona 985 and the succession of King Hugh Capet in 987, the counties of the future Catalonia are held to have come to a collective realisation that they stood alone against the times in which they found themselves. Such a date is very late for the allegiance of any Carolingian periphery to the core, however: of what could such loyalties really consist? This paper explores the various forms of evidence that can be brought to bear on this question and concludes firstly that loyalty was strong enough that it could be exploited politically by counts and kings and their followers, but that its strength was too limited to assist in real crisis, and secondly that it was those crises, in 957 and in 985, that therefore broke the last ties to the Carolingians in Catalonia.

I have yet to work out what to do with this paper, which is more or less the latest instalment of some thoughts I’ve been having since midway through my doctorate, but I’m pretty sure it fitted the conference and hope it set things up well. But from there it was to Central Europe, Brittany, Burgundy and some other fiddly bits that might be either France or Germany depending on when you look, and back to Central Europe again. If I was an outlier, so was everyone! Writing this up, I realise that the crucial issues that joined us all up, for me, were one about group identity, how it was created and why it failed, and what the rôle of the frontier was in that. So if those interest you, read on! The papers broke down like this…

  • Arthur Westwell, “Sundering the West: the Byzantine conception of Western borders and its impact on the mission to Moravia”
  • This was a fairly clear setting-out of the situation between the Frankish and Byzantine empires as they headed into one of their most significant disputes, that over who got to evangelise the Balkans. What I take from this now is mainly that although we as Carolingianists tend to see the Byzantine Empire as having deliberate policies vis-à-vis the Franks, actually the points of Western power they were interested in affecting were the papacy (whose then-occupants, Nicholas I and Hadrian II, were not necessarily the Carolingian’s favourite pontiffs) and the Slavs, and the Franks only really got onto the radar in as much as they interfered in these spheres that the Byzantines still saw as their patch. I suppose it’s probably arguable that the whole upset over who controlled Cyril and Methodius, the Byzantine missionaries in the area, was for the Franks mainly also about who could tell the pope what to do, but in either case the point is that the two empires worked against each other only via third parties, but that Francia somehow saw this differently.

    Display of excavations of the Roman palace at Sirmium, in modern-day Serbia.

    Display of excavations of the Roman palace at Sirmium, in modern-day Serbia. By [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

    At the time I felt that although Mr Westwell showed an admirable command of his material, our two papers didn’t play together very well: different centuries, different peoples, different source languages… The discussion, also, was rather divided: no-one asked both of us a question. Looking over my notes, though, it seems to me that a point of contact would have been at the way the past weighed on these polities, and in particular with archbishoprics in abandoned cities, Tarragona for me and Sirmium for Mr Westwell. Both of these got reactivated in our respective periods and both of them caused difficulty because of the subsequent history that by then overlaid them. The counts of Barcelona had to back out of Tarragona in the 960s because the Caliph of Córdoba made them, but they didn’t want it as city, they wanted it as jurisdiction over the bishoprics in their territory which were otherwise under Frankish Narbonne. They next tried moving the dignity to Vic and, as I’ve argued that failed.1 Likewise, as Helmut Reimitz pointed out in discussion, the Byzantines got Pope Hadrian II to reactivate the metropolitan province of Sirmium, which had been abandoned after an Avar sack in 582, in 870, cutting its area out of the sphere of Frankish Salzburg. The Franks then had to oust the Croat prince in charge of the area so as to have jurisdiction over their own missionary zones.2 Both the counts of Barcelona and the Franks had tried to set up new arrangements that favoured the contemporary political situation, but in both cases the fact that things had once been otherwise was something that their opponents could use to prevent those arrangements sticking.

    The Roman theatre at Tarragona in its ruins

    The Roman theatre at Tarragona in its ruins, from Wikitravel, copyright renounced

The next session gelled rather better, it being constructed thus:

  • Caroline Brett, “The Breton March: contested frontier or power vacuum”
  • Fraser McNair, “Bretons, Vikings and the Question of Ethnicity on the Tenth-Century Breton Frontier”
  • Here, Dr Brett was arguing that pictures of the Franks’ relations with Brittany that see them as steady and stable are missing the fact that the region was essentially beyond contact for much of the period 630 to 750, and that whatever the Carolingians might have said about renewing old authority when they moved in after that time, they came as conquerors and were unable to stay, not least because their conquest changed so little. She argued that Brittany therefore wasn’t a ‘real’ frontier, because no serious attempts were ever made to make it Frankish. The Frankish pressure did however work to create a Breton identity, partly because the Franks wanted leaders whom they could control but also just out of resistance.3 Fraser then took that process into the tenth century, for Brittany a period of recovery from really destabilising Viking attack, and argued that while we are probably wrong to see anyone deliberately working to establish a unifying ‘Breton’ identity, which neither texts nor material culture consistently distinguish, there may have come to be an oppositional identity as ‘Northmen’, for people who couldn’t get in on the local power games, a “loser’s identity” as he put it but one that couldn’t be contested.

    Museum reconstruction of the interior of the Viking ship-burial at Île-de-Groix, Brittany, at le Port-Musée de Douarnanée

    Museum reconstruction of the interior of the Viking ship-burial at Île-de-Groix, Brittany, at le Port-Musée de Douarnanée

    Because Fraser had talked about a ship burial at Île-de-Groix, which is unique on the Continent but also only just thereon, I wound up bringing in Ardnamurchan in discussion, similarly ‘unique’ and offshore, and pairing this with the word ‘liðsman’, ship-man, to argue that perhaps Viking identity was territorial with respect to the sea, rather than any particular piece of land, but I’m not sure if anyone bought it.4 Anther question was about the Breton language, not preserved in writing until the late Middle Ages, meaning that the Church was always ‘Roman’ or otherwise foreign in our period. Joachim Henning and Jens Christian Moesgaard got into an obdurate argument about whether one tenth-century (Anglo-Viking) coin was enough to make the ringfort of Camp de Péran a Viking stronghold or not, to which Fraser wisely pointed out that the Île-de-Groix burial contained shield bosses of a type the archæologists call Frankish but that we can be fairly sure that’s not what the burial party were out to communicate… There were divisions briefly opened up here about how far ethnicity exists in archæological terms which we would come back to both later and the next day.5

But meanwhile, there was lunch and then we got away from the coast for a bit!

  • Grégrory Girard, “Burgundy and the Carolingians: reconquer, reorganise, integrate and conserve”
  • Wojciech Fałkowski, “Neustria: competing influences, persistent traditions and ongoing rivalries”
  • With this session we moved into the internal frontiers of the Carolingian empire, places that can only be considered frontiers because of the splits of jurisdiction within it but which were thus all the more hotly contested. M. Girard took us through the history of Burgundy’s incorporation into the Frankish polity, arguing that it was not really so incorporated, rather than just being joined up, until the time of Charles Martel (ruled 718-742), at which point much that had been long established in terms of organisation was destroyed and replaced, and the following century before it broke away and split was in dealing with that. This all seemed to me to fit nicely with the Matthew Innes model of Carolingian conquest we’ve looked at here before, at least, but discussion made it clear that this was work in its early stages. Professor Fałkowski, meanwhile, argued that the Frankish principality of Neustria, covering roughly from the Loire to the Seine, offered as much of an identity in its day as the polities we had been invoking that still exist now, not least because the amount of royal property there made it somewhat of an indivisible kernel of the West Frankish kingdom as it developed. Borders between kingdoms eventually overcut its edges, but lesser divisions like bishoprics and pagi that also wound up so split were long-lasting signs of a once-greater unity. This all seemed possible to me but didn’t tell me very much about frontiers except that they are multi-scalar, which is always worth remembering. Fraser focused on the county of Vermandois, one such unit that almost became its own separate border principality for a while, and Professor Fałkowski admitted that it was exceptionally ready to disconnect from the larger identity.6 In general, I felt we might learn more from the exceptions to this theory than the conformity, which is still worth doing of course!

Then, after much needed tea, we returned to a frontier with which no-one could argue, the Eastern March, with all its rather bloody and unfortunate subsequent historical baggage.

  • Ingrid Rembold, “The Saxon Wars and the Obodrites”
  • Ivo Štefan, “Charlemagne and ‘Wild East’: transformation of Slavic world in Carolingian period”
  • Of course, the Carolingian period was not necessarily less bloody for these areas, as the late Christopher Lee sonorously reminded us and as Ms Rembold now set out, arguing for a change in the way the Carolingians saw Saxony pre- and post-785×792 because of conversion being officially carried out in that time; before, the Saxons were pagans who could be genocidally slaughtered, afterwards the war had to be won by deportation, because the enemy were now recalcitrant members of the greater Christian people. The other big change about then was that the later period involved the Slavic group known as the Obodrites, about whom we know much less than would be ideal because they seem to have been a vital point around which the new frontier politics revolved, vital but vulnerable allies, threats to whom had to divert Carolingian resources because of the possible consequences of their failure. (I’m now thinking of Italy’s relationship to Germany in the Second World War.) Given this and what Ms Rembold argued, surely correctly, was the overtly religious character of the campaigns against Saxony, it suddenly seems weird to me that there was so little Carolingian effort to convert the Obodrites; I had thought there was none, and Dr Štefan said as much too, but Daniel Melleno had to remind us all that there was one mission sent from Hamburg-Bremen, even if it had no real effect. Anyway!

    Dr Štefan took us deeper into the ninth century, a point at which as he said we suddenly start to have information about many Slav groups whose birth has therefore been seen around this time but whose distinctions or whose unifying charactertistics are very hard to establish. I would now note how, for Emperor Constantine VII writing his De Administrando Imperii in the 950s, the various ‘Slav’ peoples of the Balkans included not just immigrants but long-resident local populations of quite other origins, including what he considered to be Romans; their supposed ‘ethnicity’ was to him a matter of current political grouping, not language or origins.7 I will write more about this, but Dr Štefan may have sown the idea for me as I see from my notes that he was saying just the same thing about the historical picture more generally. The groups we do see are very short-lived and fluid, however, some arriving into the record only in the aftermath of the Carolingian destruction of the Avars and others disappearing from the record with the deaths of certain leaders, making the Carolingians ‘brands’ for them look much more like political parties than ancestral peoples. Traffic with these zones was sort of controlled, but it was controlled not at any kind of border but at portui far into uncontrolled territory.8 Their own centres were the kind of big fortresses I learnt about from the work of Hajnalka Herold, but in increasingly splendid development that may be the result of Carolingian contact but that I suspect Hajnalka would argue could as easily be reacting to Byzantium.9

    Aerial view of the centre of the fortress site of Mosaburg, now Mocs´rvár in Hungary

    Aerial view of the centre of the fortress site of Mosaburg, now Mocs´rvár in Hungary, showing the footprint of the Carolingian-era church and the ruins of the Romanesque one

    The Carolingians were at least trying to have that kind of effect, though, largely as part of a longer tradition of claims to such influence located in Bavaria even before the Carolingians took over there. In general this paper did a really good job of teasing out many active strands of contact and development without being either vague or over-positivist. I also note that it supports what I’m going to argue at Leeds next week, that for the early medieval frontier nothing was more crucial than choosing a subordinate leader you could trust and then letting him or her get on with his own plans, and how difficult that could sometimes be. This was a long paper, which also tried to fit the short-lived Moravian princedom into this picture as a kind of empire in imitation of the Carolingians, trying to do what they did with these border groups to assemble its own hegemony. Here, though, as we had seen in Brittany and in other places too, the result was that reaction to the Carolingians produced much the same result as Carolingian intervention in the long run, a new set of units with more-or-less contructed identities that now had an internal structure which would sustain them after the Carolingian wave had ebbed. I should really think harder about how Catalonia conforms to this or doesn’t, given that I don’t see Catalonia as having been colonised in the same way as I do the East. My perspectives here are probably anachronistic…

    Tympanum from an erstwhile twelfth-century church at Elstertrebnitz in Saxony

    Tympanum from an erstwhile twelfth-century church at Elstertrebnitz in Saxony, showing the Second Coming of Christ but apparently representing the unrighteous as ankh-wielding worshippers of a tree, all very interesting in a Saxon context where the Carolingians famously had such trees destroyed… It’s not me that made this link, I found it here, but the photo is by Andreas Praefcke (own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

    The discussion asked several of the kind of questions I’ve heard Hajnalka and Dr Štefan answer about their material before, but I was prompted to ask what, in either case, counted as conversion to Christianity in our sources. Of course, the answers were very different, because Ms Rembold’s material is basically textual and Dr Štefan’s basically archæological, but she immediately said that the thing that her sources are concerned is baptism, and little more, whereas his index is mainly churches, which occur in profusion in the power centres but hardly at all outside them, suggesting that conversion was more or less confined to parts of the élites.

    Reconstructed ruins of the Romanesque church at Zalavár, Hungary

    Reconstructed ruins of the Romanesque church at Zalavár, Hungary, from Wikimedia Commons

And then, after quite an intense day, it was dinnertime, but there was an awful lot to think about here, much of which as you can see I am still working with a year later. Interesting spaces to think into seem to be the difference between active and reactive development in frontier zones, and how similar their effects can be, whether there is something obvious about state formation here that we could in fact take back into supposedly ‘central’ areas (as the idea of Neustria as a frontier principality would allow, if it could be sustained) and, of course, how we measure this when evidence is so various and so differently tricky of interpretation. Identity of a group didn’t ought to be proven either by someone outside asserting it or by people within using particular goods—I stand by the noble Levi 501s (or 618s for preference, if you happen to know my size) as proof that this kind of evidence cannot be used to assert something as simple as political membership—and yet both of these are a kind of index of perception, contemporary or modern, that illustrates the possibility of distinction.10 Our modern wish to allow groups to decide their own identity here vies, I think, with the fact that even now and certainly not long ago, that prerogative was often assumed by others, not least as part of stating what those others wished not to be. We don’t want that to count as identity formation, at least in the current UK academy, but we might need to find ways of accepting that others’ wish to do so did have an effect, even if we don’t like it. Calling someone an Obodrite, or a Croat or whatever, obviously doesn’t make them one, but if you repeatedly send ambassadors to the ‘Croats’ and appoint people who can speak for such a group and equip them to govern, it may not matter in all respects whether such a group inherently exists or not. And here again, the comparison with Catalonia produces different results but perhaps only at first: the Carolingians created something here but the identity has come much later, and yet its long period of suppression from Madrid probably did (and I know some would argue, does) much to solidify what the identity now means to its claimants. As I say, I’m still thinking with all this stuff. I hope it also gets you thinking!

This post has been written to the rather odd succession of Acidoravideo Mothers Temple’s Acid Mothers Temple Festival vol. 7 and Radiohead’s OK Computer, and I’m not sure what that may have done for it.

1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: false metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1-41.

2. Apart from my notes on Helmut’s question, I’m here going on Romilly J. H. Jenkins & Francis Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1–53, 217–295; 30–36” in Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperii. A Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 93-142, whose information is getting into everything I do just now but which I should really refresh from something else…

3. I get this, and Dr Brett invoked it from, Julia M. H. Smith, Province and Empire: Brittany under the Carolingians, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 18 (Cambridge 1992).

4. Île-de-Groix was dug decades ago, but has lately been reviewed and reinterpreted in L. Tarrou, “La sépulture à bateau viking de l’île de Groix” in Les Vikings en France, Dossiers d’Archéologie no. 277 (Dijon 2002), pp. 72-79.

5. See J.-P. Nicolardot, “Le camp de Péran”, ibid. pp. 60-69, and more broadly Florin Curta, “Medieval Archaeology and Ethnicity: Where are We?” in History Compass Vol. 9 (Oxford 2011), pp. 537-548, DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2011.00787.x, which is extremely illustrative.

6. There’s not really a lot you can read in English about the ‘era of Vermandois’ except Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians (London 1983), pp. 305-339, so Fraser is probably in the right place! The work of Matthew Innes referred to here, meanwhile, is his “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.

7. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins (Budapest 1949, repr. Washington DC 1967 & 2012), online here for now, cc. 29-36, esp. 33 on the Zachloumi and 35 on the Dioclea.

8. Years ago I came across Franç-Louis Ganshof, “Note sur l’« Inquisitio de theloneis Raffelstettensis »” in Le Moyen Âge 72 (Bruxelles 1966), pp. 197-224. I don’t know what I was actually looking for but it’s stuck with me and is exactly the example I need for this sort of thing, and I worry that it may in fact be the only one…

9. See Hajnalka Herold, “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries AD in Central Europe: Structure, Function and Symbolism” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 56 (Leeds 2012), pp. 60-84, DOI: 10.1179/0076609712Z.0000000003, or I. Štefan, “Great Moravia, Statehood and Archaeology: the ‘decline and fall’ of one early medieval polity” in Jiří Macháček & Šimon Ungerman (edd.), Frühgeschichteliche Zentralorte in Mitteleuropa: Internationale Konferenz und Kolleg der Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung zum 50. Jahrestag des Beginns archäologischer Ausgrabungen in Pohansko bei Břeclav, 5.–9.10.2009, Břeclav, Tschechische Republik, Studien zur Archäologie Europas 14 (Bonn 2011), pp. 333-354.

10. There’s such an immense literature one could cite here, and so much of it mired uselessly in its own assumptions, but as well as Curta, “Medieval Archaeology and Ethnicity”, see most obviously Walter Pohl & Helmut Reimitz (edd.), Strategies of Distinction: the construction of ethnic communities, 300-800, Transformation of the Roman World 2 (Leiden 1998), and perhaps most importantly to my way of thinking, Heinrich Härke, “Invisible Britons, Gallo-Romans and Russians: perspectives on culture change” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 57-67.

36 responses to “The Carolingian Frontier II: groups and identities on all the edges

  1. I could not resist…

    a unifying ‘Breton’ identity, which neither texts nor material culture consistently distinguish

    yet at the same time …

    was about the Breton language, not preserved in writing until the late Middle Ages

    is somewhat ilogical, isn’t it?
    Language (along with history) is one of the most clear ‘ethnic’ (autoreferential social identification) markers…

    • Opps! missing html tag, between Ages and is sorry.

    • Well, yes, but it’s not an ethnicity by itself, or not all of one. But we know that the Breton language was there, because of personal and place-names; we just don’t have it written until very late. For Brittany it would have been quite difficult to use language as an ethnic foundation, as the territory usually governed under that name was probably usually half-Breton-speaking and half-Romance-speaking. Any leader basing himself on a linguistic identity would have been constraining his ambitions.

      • Thanks for the fix!
        I dont buy-it. Mixed languages are the norm after an intense enough imperialistic acculturation. ‘Politics/power management’ is a very important dimension in the social identification space, yes, but not the only one, not even the most important, cultural ones (ie: language, history) are even more prevalent and long lasting.

        • No, OK, but one does get polities in which numerous languages are spoken yet a single national identity is still constructed, at least at some levels. The modern USA would be one example, where language spoken is a much less significant indicator of ethnicity than skin coloration, but the Byzantine Empire might be another, noting people’s family and geographic origins (but almost never their native language) but not seeing in that any bar to attainment of the very highest office…

          • But Jonathan, a single national identity expanding over other neighbor identitites is just a definition of imperialism!
            There are other types of selfreferencing social identifications. An empire can be seen as a cancerigen social identity that grows beyond his initial/natural limits acculturating neighbor identities. In other words, empires mainly exists because there are other non imperial social identities around; empires are the exception (but they are big and shape history, of course).
            What does not exist afaik are human communities void of selfreferencing sense.
            Maybe Bretons were not an empire, but to me, it looks like just another case of the old: ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.

            • Possibly it would help to clarify that the paper was talking very specifically about methods of legitimating political power – it wasn’t arguing that Bretons didn’t exist, simply that the late ninth and early tenth century rulers of Brittany didn’t (for the most part) legitimise themselves by reference to a Breton ethnic identity. Plenty of people were recognised as Bretons, but it doesn’t seem to have had particular salience in the political sphere.

              • Thanks Fraser, I hope the post doesn’t represent you unfairly in that case. But please let me know if you think changes are due!

              • Thanks!

                I understand that early medieval sources are highly systematically biased (a contemporany parallel case could be the tension between franks and goths), so we need to go further than explicit textual evidence. Your ‘(for the most part’ sentence)’ does it means that there are traces of early medieval ‘breton’ power management?

                • The ‘for the most part’ was actually referring to change over time – legitimacy through ethnicity was always a bit of a background element, but rather more prominent in the fourth quarter of the ninth century than the third. As for going beyond the texts, the paper was actually reacting against a tendency to do that. The history of the Vikings in Brittany tends to be read as a… well, ‘race war’ is perhaps a bit inflammatory, but certainly as a conflict between two more-or-less fundamentally distinct, ethnically-defined groups (to wit, ‘Vikings’ and ‘Bretons’). What I was trying to show is that a) this is a deeply questionable assumption, b) that the boundaries between ‘Scandinavian’ and ‘Breton’ could be very blurry(1), and c) that ethnicity didn’t make a necessary difference to politics unless it was deliberately used to do so.

                  Finally, if Jon doesn’t mind me doing a bit of self-promotion, I would like to say that a revised version of the paper I gave at this conference will be forthcoming in _Viking and Medieval Scandinavia_ at some point in the medium-term future, so anyone particularly interested in this will find it all shiny and written-up there!

                  (1) In fact, one thing I would like to know if there’s more work on is the presence of non-Scandinavians in Viking raiding parties. Does anyone reading this have any bibliographical pointers?

                  • (1) Ooh crikey. Is this something that has been done from the Irish evidence, maybe by Claire Downham? I haven’t actually made my way through her various recent works…

                  • Non-Scandinavians in raiding parties emanating from Scandinavia? That would be interesting. What I’m aware of are reports that in the latter part of the ninth century, the Franks and Bretons used to raid each other in the company of large bands of Vikings that they had hired.

                    • There is certainly quite the controversy swirling still around a group called the Gael Gaidhil in the Irish sources, who appear to have been freebooters based in what is now Galloway in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The jury is out, and has been for some time, on whether these were Vikings from Ireland set up over there, locals turning Viking for a profit, actual Gaelicised Scandinavians or vice versa, since basically all the sources tell us is that they were bad news. But to those one could add the various sources around the court of Æthelred the Unready that lament the English who have gone off to join the heathens, and there’s likewise the question about who the armies of the East Angles and the Northumbrians are when they fight Wessex after the Vikings have taken over those kingdoms. I don’t think the idea that there might be local Vikings should surprise us, really, but that’s not the same as good evidence for it, and I can’t think of any that’s not insular. That might be more to do with what courses I’ve taught Vikings in than anything else, however.

                  • When one has Normans (e.g. the Contevilles and the Valognes) calling their daughters “Muriel”, it signifies a cultural convergence. The question is whether Breton names had become popular among the descendants of Vikings in the same way that St Aubin became a popular saint right across the plains of northern Europe, or whether those Norman families had significant Breton ancestry – as William the Conqueror did, courtesy of a succession of diplomatic marriages.

                    • Well, if that is the question, I would submit that either the answer is “both, surely, in unknowable proportions” or else that we have to suppose some quite fierce cultural bars to such assimilation, and in a province as broken up as ninth- and tenth-century Brittany, what would have kept such bars in place? Again, evidence would be nice, but absence of evidence would not disprove either option I think.

            • a single national identity expanding over other neighbor identitites is just a definition of imperialism!

              I don’t think I’d deny that, but something like the USA or the later Roman Empire, where, whatever its external ambitions, its internal composition is of people of many previous nationalities, and languages, skin colours or whatever other markers of ethnicity one might use, become perceived from outside and in many ways from inside as one ethnicity overriding all others—Irish-American, Hispanic American, German American, Hungarian American, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, maybe some day even black American… A composite ethnicity like that can’t be solely linguistic, but it does seem to be possible.

              Now, as for Brittany, and with Fraser’s moderation considered, in what became Brittany as it was formed by the late ninth century, there was a zone where Breton seems to have been the normal language and one where Romance was. A linguistic identification by the rulers would therefore have only identified them with a part of their potential constituency, and all I’m suggesting is that that is why we shouldn’t expect to see power interests stressing a linguistic ethnic identity. I think this actually supports your position, doesn’t it? Language would have been a bad basis for ethnic assertion here, and there doesn’t seem to have been any other identified…

              • Well, I never said breton language or ethnicity were used as a political tool, I don’t know. If early Britanny have speakers of breton and romance in different parts of the land, then the question could be: How both sides related to each other? (different vs shared local dinasties?) or: How this dichotomy affected the breton ethnicity?

                My position is that early medieval sources are almost blind to social identificacions, ‘ethnicities’, (only the pow of the power was recorded), yet, they existed and surely have his part in social dynamics.

                • It’s fascinating that the Breton-speaking, Gallo-speaking, and standard-French-speaking people in Vannes, Rennes, Nantes and other locations in historic Brittany identify as Breton, despite their different linguistic preferences and administrative separation (e.g. Nantes is not administered as part of Brittany but as the largest city in the Pays-de-Loire).

                  A hypothetical English equivalent might be Cumbrians identifying as either Scottish or Welsh.

                  • Clear enough for the western side of the English Channel. What about the eastern one, the ‘belgians’? Can we say that being in a shorter path to continent was in the long run deleterious for the estability of his ethnicity on the insular side?

  2. First I’ll say thanks for bringing us this Breton interest (I shall read the rest of this post later, but I just wanted to say this before getting waylaid by the Obrodites, or by Neustria). I find nothing from the Carolingian period to suggest their control over Brittany was anything other than (at best) nominal. So they waved some fancy fabrics and golds and said, ‘You can have this too’. But in return, the Breton princelings played them like a trout on a line. Also, at this period, the Bretons were too disorganised to play any real part in the Carolingian empire. It was only the need to organise resistance against the later Viking attacks that (as with Alfred & England) they began to join together into something that was eventually to become a state.
    I’d argue too that religion was very much in local hands. There are ample examples of the Carolingian churchmen complaining of the ‘Celtic’ priests with their unorthodox ways. Though perhaps ‘foreign’ was supposed to mean Irish or Welsh? Yet what was the difference between Welsh and Breton, except from the land they stood upon?

    • The arguments you make here are very much the sort of processes covered in the Julia Smith book I reference, which is now out in paperback (not that I’m a fan of hers or anything). I think I’d probably agree that religion was very localised, though, and on that Wendy Davies’s Small Worlds is perhaps more informative; if I remember rightly, the only bishopric covering the area is Frankish Nantes, so a properly Breton Church was organised only around the monasteries of Redon and Landevennec, and ministry was very local and poorly regulated. I think it might as much be that, as anything ‘Celtic’ about the Church, that upset the Carolingian churchmen, though I agree that whatever differences that ministry had would likely have tended towards the British Isles as much as anywhere. As to what the difference was btween Welsh and Breton, I don’t know when we consider the languages to diverge but I seem to remember that Common Celtic is supposed to die somewhere in the sixth century, so while I imagine they’d have been mutually intelligible still, I’m fairly sure they’d have thought each other foreign at this stage, even if (as Armes Prydein argues at around this time) somehow kindred. But we’re back here into issues of what constitutes national identity which conversation elsewhere shows is contentious. What made them different? Living elsewhere, obviously, but that could be quite a lot of difference…

      • A thorough reply, I thank you. And, yea, Wendy Davies’s Small Worlds is an excellent study although by its nature may not be representative of the entire Armorican peninsula. I see Brittany at this time as a number of disunited princedoms (if to use that term isn’t to overstretch it) some of which looked towards the Frankish kingdom, some looked to what they considered their Celtic ‘Old World’ and others (possibly because they comprised mostly indigenous Gauls) looked inward. On that point the timing and extent of colonization of Brittany is much disputed. Therefore a ‘Roman’ or Romanized church might represent the continuation of the indigenous culture, rather than Carolingian influence. So much is unknown and unknowable regards the peninsula. As to the language, I can’t quote a source yet I’m given to understand than Breton and Welsh were all but indistinguishable as late as C10th. Which coincides with the beginning of a national identity. But even then, did that encompass the entire peninsula? Abbey cartularies and external sources can tell us only so much and the period of Viking incursions seems to effected a Dark Age darker yet than C5th-C6th Britain.

        • That does depend to an extent how pessimistic about C5th-C6th Britain one is, but yes, an almost total level of breakdown of whatever had been united before, a perspective that by its nature must come from archæology rather than written sources but which that archæology certainly doesn’t contradict.

      • The Bretons continued to visit Great Britain often: they were sea traders, after all.

        As an indication of the persistence of, let’s call it sympathy, recall that one of Jacquetta of Luxembourg’s sons died in 1488 defending Brittany.

        The modern House of Rohan has properties and investments in numerous European countries, as they have for many centuries, and their ancestry is admittedly drawn from all of those nations, but they still identify as Breton. Why is that?

  3. (1) “Brittany therefore wasn’t a ‘real’ frontier, because no serious attempts were ever made to make it Frankish.”

    Charles the Bald would beg to differ!

    (2) “the Breton language, not preserved in writing until the late Middle Ages”.

    I suppose you mean in cartularies? The manuscript de Leyde (circa 790) contains some thirty Breton words.

    (3) `people who couldn’t get in on the local power games, a “loser’s identity” as he put it’.

    “Losers” or “Loisirs”? Perhaps the Bretons regarded making money as more important and conquering their neighbours. The Counts of Vannes came from Venta Silurum, a marketplace, after all.

    • But Charles the Bald set up and hived off spheres of interest for two (or three? I forget) Breton princes in whose affairs he didn’t intervene as long as they acknowledge their submission to him, it’s not exactly cultural assimilation of the most active sort… And the “losers’ identity” there would be the ‘Northman’ one, not the Breton one. But I stand corrected about the Breton writing. I can only say, I was reporting what my notes record of what I heard, there are several ways for things to have got wrong here…

      • Charles the Bald’s idea of submission was any indication of a monetary payment to him. An excerpt from my notes illustrates this.

        “863: Charles the Bald gathers an [yet another] army and begins marching on Brittany, but holds off near Entrammes [in Mayenne, i.e. at the then Breton border] and negotiates a peace with Salomon whereby western Anjou is recognised as a part of Brittany and the lay abbacy of Saint-Aubin in Angers is granted to Salomon, who `commends himself’ to Charles and `pays tribute'”.

        Think about that for a minute: Charles’s invasion ended with his ceding territory and an abbey to Salomon. Whatever “commends” means here, the “pays tribute” is a mite fanciful: in the context of Charles’s evident weakness, it’s more plausible that Salomon bought the abbacy fair-and-square.

        “865 and 866: Battle of Brissarthe: The Vikings led by Hastein and the Bretons led by Salomon ravage the vicinity of Le Mans, and kill Robert the Strong in the Battle of Brissarthe. This is the start of a new insurrection. Pope Nicholas I writes letters to Salomon urging him to resume the halted `tribute payments’.”

        “867: Charles the Bald [yet again] marches an army toward Brittany.

        867 August: Peace of Compiègne: Salomon sends his son-in-law Pascweten to negotiate a lasting peace at Compiègne (north of Paris in Picardy) with Charles. Charles sends hostages to Salomon. Pascweten “swears an oath of fidelity” to Charles on Salomon’s behalf. In accord with this treaty, Salomon is granted the counties of Avranches and Coutances.”

        So, in return for some kind words, Charles sent hostages and ceded more territory. Doesn’t sound like a very successful invasion.

        One can only deduce that in that period the Franks couldn’t spare the manpower or the financial resources to sustain a conflict with the Bretons; that. in fact, the Bretons had a greater concentration of both than the Franks could bring to bear in those areas (Mayenne, western Anjou, Avranches and Coutances) that they relinquished to Breton control.

        • Sharply observed, and I agree about the dynamics involved! But although that might, just, qualify as an attempt to give the Breton prince a stake and membership in the larger Frankish polity, it’s definitely not an attempt to Frankicise the Breton population, is it?

  4. churches, which occur in profusion in the power centres but hardly at all outside them, suggesting that conversion was more or less confined to parts of the élites.

    I would be very careful in using the existence of churches to be the (sole) signifier of Christianity during a conversion period. Depending on local building culture, people outside the elite may not have been able to afford building in stone, and a church may not have been recognisable from a secular building made in wattle and daub. For example, many of the early churches in Scandinavia were first built in wood, and later (12th c?) re-built in stone.
    Also, (negating the previous possibility) if churches were only found in the power centres, it is not impossible to consider that Christians living outside these would travel there to celebrate mass. This is of course dependent on travel distance, and may only have been done for major occasions (cf the church towns in northern Scandinavia (

    • I may not have made the line between what was being presented and my editorialising clear enough here. Obviously, as someone who used to work with John Blair, I am keenly aware that we may not be able to distinguish a simple church archæologically. And actually the problem of allowing for wooden building badly affects chronology in my Catalanarea’s archæological writing too. But as long as we’re assuming some kind of organised Christianity, I think that what work like both John’s and his opponents’ tells us is that local power interests would have wanted churches they could control as soon as the population of worshippers made that viable, and there is a requirement of sorts in Christianity for facilities for worship to be set up when that threshold is reached. I think that if it were actually the case that churches were only to be found in cities or fortresses, and that people came to them from outside, that would be telling us something about low uptake of Christian worship in the countryside, just as people argue that the delay before the establishment of local parishes in much of the West shows low levels of rural Christianization.

  5. Pingback: The Carolingian Frontier III: points north and east | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. (Replying here rather than above to prevent an overabundance of columns)

    Most Viking raiding parties where I encounter them, in Gaul, don’t actually come from Scandinavia, but usually from the British Isles – this is the case with the most famous instance grdtobin refers to of Franks and Bretons raiding each other, in 862. In this instance, the Frankish magnate Robert the Strong essentially outbids the Breton ruler Salomon for the services (or, at least, the neutrality) of a Viking warband. Now, Hincmar happens to record the path of this band quite closely, so it can be traced back from the Loire to the Seine, and then (in the previous year of 861), Therouanne, and their point of immediate origin, which was England.

    The question of non-Scandinavian Vikings first came up, for me anyway, in reference to an Old Frisian Law code which (in addition to being online at in case anyone feels like practising their Old Frisian – there’s a German translation on the following page) says that when someone is taken by Northmen, if, on his return, he claims his activities were done under duress, he cannot be prosecuted even if he burned villages or killed people. Leaving aside the question of how representative this is, it must have happened on at least a few occasions… In the case of Brittany specifically, moreover, I think that, after 925, pretty much all the local ‘Northman’ leaders were born and raised in Breton-speaking environments, raising distinct questions about what ‘Northman-ness’ consisted of…

    More generally, though, the question of non-Scandinavian Vikings raises the important point: where are all the other pirates in eighth-through-eleventh century Europe?

    • Other pirates? St Malo comes to mind as home-base for native Breton pirates. Was it already so in the period 700-1100? As I recall, the northern Breton ports were very hard targets for the Vikings (as later for the English), as raids often ended badly: the ports were walled, the citizens armed, and the harbours contained many aggressive maritime defenders.

  7. Whilst we’re discussing hired Scandinavians, even after King Canute’s reign ended, the Danes sent an extraordinary number of fleets to England in support of rebels. Even the Anglo-Breton baron Ralph de Gael et de Montfort, after the abject failure of the Revolt of the Earls in 1075 and while his wife was conducting her courageous last-ditch defence of Norwich castle, promptly went to Denmark and hired I think it was 200 ships for an attempted invasion.

    When that also failed, Ralph joined his wife in Brittany in 1076, taking time to join Count Eudon (paradoxically an ally of William I and the father of Count Alan who had just obtained so many of Ralph’s lands) in Eudon’s never-ending conflict with the heirs of his deceased brother Duke Alan IV (c. 997-1040).

    Weird politics.

    • I think that, as so often, a shared class background here was a far more important solidarity than anything ethnic or political. This becomes really very apparent in the Hundred Years War (where Froissart can talk about a Gascon born on the French side of the border being “at that time a loyal Englishman” while he serves with English forces) but at the high noble level, I expect it were so much earlier too, not least because of Æthelstan’s efforts to be the hub of the North Sea courts earlier in the tenth century, thus linking many of them by marriage.

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