What if Widukind was wrong about warfare?

I feel a little bad about returning to David Bachrach’s book Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany with my claws still out after his generous and lengthy responses to my previous critiques. I’m going to do it anyway, of course, but I feel it more necessary than usual to stress to the readership that I use this blog primarily as a platform on which to look clever, and that someone else’s work gives me the chance to do so is not necessarily an indictment of it. Indeed, the first two substantive chapters of Professor Bachrach’s book are possibly the clearest narrative of the politics of the Ottonian realm under Henry I (919-936) and Otto I (936-973) that I’ve read anywhere, militarily-focused or otherwise, and the whole book does the English-reading population of historically-minded people a favour by making the Ottonians more available to us.1 But every year I have a fresh cohort of first-year students who don’t really understand what I mean by critical use of primary sources, and those same first two chapters provide me with some really good object examples.

Monte Cassino, Museo storico, Codex Casinensis 298, showing a contents page from Widukind of Corvey's Sachsengeschichte

A contents page from the oldest manuscript of Widukind of Corvey’s Sachsengeschichte, Monte Cassino, Museo storico, Codex Casinensis 298, here p. 190 (apparently)

The crucial source for much of what Professor Bachrach sets out is the so-called Sachsengeschichte of Widukind of Corvey, written up in 968 and then edited after Otto I’s death in 973, and very lately translated into English by none other than the well-known firm of Bachrach & Bachrach, indeed.2 Widukind was a monk but seems to have been unusually interested in military campaigns, so the first object lesson for my notional students: just because someone is religiously-inclined does not prevent them having good information on secular matters! You have to go further than that and establish, if you can, what bees this particular author has in his or her bonnet about such things. Now, as I say, Widukind is very often the key testimony for Professor Bachrach’s account but the trouble is that sometimes he is flatly contradicted by other sources. Let’s work through an example.

Roman walls built into later structures at Regensburg, Germany

I’m not sure how much of Regensburg’s medieval walls are left but here is some Roman work that obviously must still have been there at the time we’re writing about… Image by Lance Longwell and (c) Travel Addicts – 2014.  Used with permission

Even by 921 King Henry I was not accepted by all his German subjects, and one particular hold-out was the duchy of Bavaria, then under one Arnulf. Henry had hitherto been occupied trying to arrange peace on his western borders but with that done was able to turn his attention to Bavaria, where Widukind tells us he laid siege to Arnulf at Regensburg and that Arnulf, realising the game was up, surrendered and terms were reached.3 Well, so far so good, but this is only one version of events. The Italian diplomat, gossip-monger and courtier of Otto I, Liudprand of Cremona, writing in the period 958-962, instead records that Henry and Arnulf met with armies on the battlefield but concluded the truce there rather than fight.4 And if that weren’t enough, another text records that Henry invaded Bavaria but was driven out by the forces of an unnamed city, with terms being reached after that.5 Now, I have all these references from Professor Bachrach himself who diligently records them in a footnote, but what he doesn’t give is any reason why we should accept Widukind’s version over the other two. One might meanly suspect that it is because Widukind alone mentions a siege and Professor Bachrach has hung his historiographical hat on the importance of sieges in the warfare of the period, as we have seen.6 I’m sure it is in fact otherwise, but what could we do instead?

Later tenth-century manuscript page of Liutprand's Antapodosis now in Münich

Later tenth-century manuscript page of Liutprand’s Antapodosis, now Münich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6338, image from Wikimedia Commons

There are several ways this could be resolved, although none of them are conclusive. I think that the anonymous Fragmentum de Arnulfo duce Bavarie can probably be ignored; its purpose was to glorify Arnulf, so it had no interest in recording his defeat, but more importantly its version offers no explanation for Arnulf actually making terms, which he evidently did as Henry went away and Arnulf was willing to fight alongside him on the eastern frontier in later years.7 Liudprand is harder to dismiss, however; he was writing earlier than Widukind and with access to Otto I’s court and anyone there who might have had memories of these campaigns, and his obvious interest in praising the Ottonians (as compared to his previous employer, King Berengar II of Italy) still didn’t lead him to give Henry a decisive victory as did Widukind.8 In some senses both are telling the same essential story: Henry brought an army and Arnulf decided it wasn’t worth fighting. The difference is that Liudprand thought that was best set in the field and Widukind saw it at the city walls, and at least implies the fighting which Liudprand denies. We don’t know why but it is possible that Widukind was making a literary choice, in which case Professor Bachrach has a problem to deal with.

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

Can we get any other angles on Widukind’s historiographical preferences? Yes, we can. In 928 Henry I was busy dealing with the various Slav groups on his eastern border. First among these, because they had raided his territory a few years before and because they stood in the way of any major campaign in the middle Elbe region, were a group called the Hevelli who were centred at what is now Brandenburg, where they had a fortress.9 Professor Bachrach’s account is clear and concise, so let’s use that:

“Widukind, who is our best source for this war, makes clear that Henry’s campaign against the Hevelli involved several subsidiary military operations before the urbs at Brandenburg itself was captured. He stressed that the German forces wore out the Slavs in numerous battles (multis preliis fatigans) over a lengthy period.93 It was only after he had sufficiently isolated Brandenburg that Henry deployed his army in a close siege of the fortress. Widukind draws attention to the fact that by the time Henry actually began direct operations against the Hevelli princely seat, the coldest part of the winter had arrived. As a result, the army was forced to camp on ice (castris super glaciem positis).94 Ultimately, Henry captured Brandenburg by storm, after besieging the stronghold for some time.95

“93 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35.
“94 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35. In describing the siege and capture of Brandenburg, Widukind alludes to Cicero’s speech against Lucius Calpurnius Piso. Cicero, In Pisonem, 17 reads, “exercitus nostri interitus ferro, fame, frigore, pestilentia.” Here, Cicero was listing the causes for the casualties suffered by Piso’s troops when he served as governor of Macedonia. Widukind paraphrases here listing only hunger, arms (literally iron), and cold as the causes for the casualties suffered by the defenders of Brandenburg.
“95 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35.”

There’s quite a lot that can be read between the lines here, it seems to me. One is Henry’s determination in pursuing the campaign, which may well be what Widukind wanted to illustrate: the king presumably hadn’t meant to be campaigning still in the dead of winter, which would have been nearly as difficult for his troops as for the defenders and was an occasional cause of mutiny in the Byzantine world.10 It looks rather as if siege was his last resort after trying to beat the enemy decisively in the field had failed several times. Even then, he seems to have waited before risking an assault. Presumably at each stage he hoped for a surrender that the Hevelli weren’t willing to offer. That, at least, seems as fair a reading as one that makes it all strategic wearing down of the enemy; who would have planned to make their army camp on ice? (Though that does suggest that perhaps the fortress was unreachable previously because of surrounding water—as indeed above though the Ottonian forces presumably didn’t camp on the moat—in which case Henry probably didn’t start out meaning to besiege it.)

Portrait bust of M. Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, no less

But you saw the footnote, right? Object lesson number two for the notional students: always glance at the footnotes. Perhaps more important than the campaign’s duration is the unexpected presence of this guy in the text, this of course being Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman orator and politican of the first century B. C., and with him arrives a possibility unsettling for someone wanting to read Widukind straight here, to wit that he had a written model in mind for how this situation should be described that was nothing to do with what had happened. For most history undergraduates in the UK I guess that this methodological problem is first opened up to them when briefly studying Charlemagne, because they will be set to read Einhard’s Life of Charles and if their teacher’s any good, will then be faced with the fact that Einhard borrowed almost all of his description of Charlemagne from Suetonius’s Twelve Cæsars, in order to make Charlemagne truly the image of his Roman imperial predecessors.11

Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)

Silver denier of Charlemagne, struck at an uncertain mint in 812-814, Künker sale 205 (March 12 and 13, 2012), lot 1405, now in a private collection

Silver denarius of Emperor Vespasian struck at Rome in 69-71, Beast Coins Z2844

Silver denarius of Emperor Vespasian struck at Rome in 69-71, Beast Coins Z2844

The good ones will then work out, of course, that if Einhard was picking descriptions from twelve different emperors to describe one, the best reason for him to select the bits he did was probably because they actually fitted Charlemagne—it’s like my bit about formulae mentioning dovecotes in charters, most probably used because the property in question actually had a dovecote. Maybe the same thing was happening here, so that Widukind had a historical story to tell and saw how perfectly the Cicero quote could fit it. We can hope so, especially since there seems to be no other lifting from Cicero in the story. But one does have at least to think about it. Now, I’m sure that Professor Bachrach has thought about all these questions, for the very simple reason that he’s put the evidence that provokes them in his own footnotes! But I wish he’d had space also to explain how he resolved them in favour of Widukind’s accuracy each time.


1. David Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012, repr. 2014), pp. 14-69.

2. Widukind, Res gestae Saxonicae, ed. & (German) transl. Albert Bauer & Reinhold Rau as “Die Sachsengeschichte des Widukind von Korvei” in Bauer & Rau (edd.), Quellen zur Geschichte der sächsischen Kaiserzeit (Fontes ad historiam aevi Saxonici illustrandam), Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 8 (Darmstadt 1971), pp. 1-183, (English) transl. Bernard S. Bachrach & David Bachrach as Widukind of Corvey, Deeds of the Saxons, translated with an introduction and notes (Washington DC 2014).

3. Widukind, Res gestae, I.27; Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 20-21, citing Widukind at p. 20 n. 38.

4. Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, ed. Paolo Chiesa in Chiesa (ed.), Liudprandi Cremonensis Opera omnia: Antapodosis, Homelia paschalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana, Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Medievalis 156 (Turnhout 1998), pp. 1-150, transl. in F. A. Wright (transl.), The Works of Liudprand of Cremona (London 1930), pp. 27-212, II.21, cit. by Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 20 n. 38.

5. Fragmentum de Arnulfo Bavariae, ed. Philipp Jaffé in Jaffé (ed.), “Annales et notae S. Emmerami Ratisbonensis et Weltenburgenses” in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) XVII (Hannover 1861, repr. 1990), p. 570 of pp. 567-576, cit. by Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 20 n. 38.

6. Thus also ibid. p. 22 where Adalbert of Magdeburg, who describes a siege at Metz in 923, is preferred over Flodoard of Reims who describes a different sort of campaign by the German king. They both make it look as if their preferred king won, of course, and maybe there’s something going on where Flodoard focuses on the invading king as a general force of unjust destruction and Adalbert has him single-mindedly focused on the target, Bishop Wigeric of Metz, who had attacked a royal estate. That’s only my speculation, though, and doesn’t settle the question.

7. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 29-30.

8. On Liudprand’s agenda, see Karl Leyser, “Ends and Means in Liudprand of Cremona” in James Howard-Johnston (ed.), Byzantium and the West c. 850 – c. 1200: proceedings of the XVIII Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Oxford 30. March – 1. April 1984, Byzantinische Forschungen 13 (Amsterdam 1988), pp. 119-143, repr. in Leyser, Communications and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), 2 vols, I, pp. 125-142, but in searching out that reference I find also the very relevant-looking Antoni Grabowski, “‘Duel’ between Henry I and Arnulf of Bavaria according to Liudprand of Cremona” in Roman Czaja, Eduard Mühle & Andrzej Radziminski (edd.), Konfliktbewältigung und Friedensstiftung im Mittelalter (Torún 2012), pp. 387-400, which I have not seen but seems worth mentioning.

9. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 27-28, quote below on p. 28.

10. As under Maurice in 592: see Andrew Louth, “Justinian and his Legacy (500-600)” in Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2007), pp. 99-129 at p. 127.

11. See Matthew Innes, “The classical tradition in the Carolingian Renaissance: ninth-century encounters with Suetonius” in International Journal of the Classical Tradition Vol. 3 (New Brunswick 1997), pp. 265-282.

37 responses to “What if Widukind was wrong about warfare?

  1. David Bachrach

    Dear Jonathan,

    As with regard to your earlier post about my book, I very much appreciate the publicity that you are generating, and if I should see a spike in sales, I will stand you a drink at Leeds. Thank you also for the kind words about the first two chapters of the text.

    But with regard to the two issues that you raise, I believe that some contextualization and commentary is necessary. So please forgive me for invading the space of your blog again.

    The initial passage from Widukind (1.27) that you mention states: “After this success, Henry marched to Bavaria where Arnulf ruled as duke. Henry found Arnulf defending the city, which is called Regensburg, and besieged him there. When Arnulf realized that he could not resist the king, he opened the gates and went out to meet the king. He submitted himself and his entire duchy to Henry.”

    Liudprand’s story, which is much lengthier, starts in this way: Antapodosis, 2.21 “Rex Heinricus, cum obtemperare suis omnes iussionibus, Arnaldum solummodo resistere cerneret, pervalido collecto exercitu Bagoariam tendit.”

    Liudprand then goes on to say that Arnold gathered a large army with which to face Henry, but when the two armies came into contact, Henry thought that such a battle would lead to a great loss by both sides, and so asked Arnulf to meet him in a face to face conversation. During this conversation, Henry explained to Arnulf that he could not win, and Arnulf then went back to speak with his advisors, and in the end, (2.23) “Arnaldus suorum hoc optimo bonoque consilio, Heinrici regis miles efficitur et ab eo, ut iam dictum est, concessis totius Bagoariae pontificibus honoratur.”

    As you point out, the basic facts of Henry I’s invasion are clear. Both Widukind and Liudprand state that Henry advanced into Bavaria with a very large army with the intention of making Arnulf submit, and that Arnulf submitted.

    When considering the two stories, one has the appearance of a set-piece rhetorical display, but it is not the account by Widukind.

    But leaving aside Liudprand’s rhetorical flourishes, including his lengthy description of Henry I’s private dialogue with Arnulf, that no one else heard, what are the practical military considerations here?

    Henry invaded Bavaria with an army that he thought sufficiently large to compel Arnulf to behave himself now and in the future. It turns out that Henry correctly judged the size of the army that he would need for this purpose in light of Arnulf’s subsequent behavior as described by chroniclers other than Widukind, including the pro-Arnulf author of the Fragmentum de Arnulfo duce Bavarie.

    Under these conditions, what is the likelihood that Arnulf sought out battle in the field against a superior opponent rather than withdrawing to Regensburg? This is precisely what Arnulf’s sons did when Otto I invaded Bavaria in 938 for the first time, and were successful in holding out against the new king. This is also what the Bavarian rebels did in 953 and were successful in holding out against Otto despite his presence in Bavaria for several months. Moreover aside from the specific cases in Bavaria, what examples are there of one commander seeking a military confrontation in the field with another commander in the context of an open-field battle during the first half of the tenth century? I know of no such set piece encounters. All of the battles fought by Henry I, Otto I, and their various commanders involved either the relief of a siege, or an ambush. The one possible exception is the battle of the Recknitz where Otto I found himself trapped at a ford at the end of a long and tenuous supply line. The battle of Riade, where Henry sought a confrontation with the Hungarians, was supposed to be an ambush, and also took place in the context of a siege.

    Finally, in terms of evaluating the sources of information available to the two authors, and also their audiences, it is widely accepted by specialists dealing with Widukind’s text not named Johannes Fried that Widukind was writing for, and commissioned by the Ottonian court, and that the first version of his text was written in the same time frame as Liudprand’s. By contrast, it is not clear that Liudprand was writing for Otto I, although he certainly had positive things to say about the Ottonian dynasty and benefitted from Otto I’s patronage. On balance, it appears that Liudprand is the one who was making a literary choice in order to permit him to place a speech in the mouth of Henry I, something that he does on several other occasions as well. A speech works much better in a face to face confrontation in a field than it does with Arnulf shouting down from the walls of Regensburg.

    As to my preference for accounts that focus on sieges, it also would be useful to point out that Widukind stresses sieges throughout his text, and if we were to convert the military encounter with Arnulf from a siege to a confrontation in the field, this would place the ratio at 45 sieges to 13 confrontations in the field. (In this, Widukind was quite consistent with all of the other contemporary writers, including Liudprand when he was not indulging in his practice of following in the tradition of Thucydides.

    With regard to the second issue, namely Widukind’s use of a phrase from Cicero to describe the denoument of the siege of Brandenburg, I find somewhat confusing your statement “with him arrives a possibility unsettling for someone wanting to read Widukind straight here, to wit that he had a written model in mind for how this situation should be described that was nothing to do with what had happened.”

    The idea of a medieval author borrowing a snappy phrase from either a classical or biblical text to show off is so well established in scholarly studies of medieval writers that it does not require repeating except perhaps to first year university students.

    But in this case, the phrase actually was particularly apropos because both Widukind and Cicero were discussing casualties. Of course, Widukind modified the phrase, as I make clear in the note, to make it appropriate to his present context.

    But other than this minor point, what could Widukind’s borrowing from Cicero possibly imply in your view? Are you suggesting that Henry I’s troops did not suffer from the cold, or that some of the men were not killed by iron weapons? Or are you suggesting that Henry did not capture Brandenburg?

    In addition, there are three further assumptions that you make that also should be considered in more detail, namely that Henry’s campaign against the Hevelli began in 928, that he sought a decisive battle against the Hevelli, and also that he did not want to fight a winter campaign. Here, one must be aware of both the archaeology for the Hevelli region, and also know what Henry did after capturing Brandenburg in wintertime. (“Henry I of Germany’s 929 Military Campaign in Archaeological Perspective,” Early Medieval Europe 21 (2013), 307-337).

    It seems very likely that Widukind telescopes time in his discussion of Henry I’s campaign against the Hevelli. The peace agreement with the Hungarians that gave Henry a free hand against the Slavs took place in either 924 or 926 (the date that I prefer), and his campaign that resulted in the capture of Brandenburg took place over the winter of 928-929. This provides a period of several years in which Henry could undertake military operations against the Hevelli, operations that came to a head in the winter of 928-929 with the final siege of Brandenburg.

    Next, it is necessary to know that Brandenburg was defended by a belt of fortifications to its west and south, almost all of which were constructed in the decade before 929 according to the most recent dendrochronological dating. Before Henry could assault Brandenburg, he needed to reduce these fortifications in order to avoid placing his army in the dangerous position of undertaking a siege in enemy held territory at the end of an extended supply line. Far from chasing down bands of Hevelli warriors looking for a fight, the German king was seizing and garrisoning their fortresses before the final showdown at Brandenburg. It is likely that this did not happen in a matter of a few months, but rather took place over a period of years in light of the number of strongholds involved.

    Third, if Henry was opposed to a winter campaign, it is hard to reconcile this with his subsequent actions, which included maintaining his army in the field for the next several months after the capture of Brandenburg, first turning south toward the Sorb fortress at Gana, and then marching further south to Prague. Along the way, Henry began construction of the fortress at Meissen, which is dated by dendrochronology to 929. Excavations of a number of the Hevelli and Sorb fortresses along the line of Henry I’s march show catastrophic destruction by fires also dated through dendrochronology to 929. Finally, Henry’s army arrived at Prague in the spring, having spent the entire winter capturing fortresses along the Elbe river. None of these actions suggest that Henry I was concerned about leading his army on campaign in winter, Emperor Maurice’s bad experience notwithstanding.

    • Another lengthy and generous reply, to which my short answer would be: I see how you couldn’t fit all that in the book, but I hope you can also see how I got to my positions from what you did put there! I would certainly agree that few authors of the tenth century are less likely to have been making rhetorical flourishes than Liudprand. Still, it’s worth working these ideas over for an audience that may include those with even less historical training than my notional first-years…

      Just to clarify—because now that I look, you’re quite right, it’s not clear in the post—I focused on Widukind’s borrowing from Cicero as a way that we might explain his difference from Liudprand in the earlier extract. I suppose, not knowing the text as you do, that if I were really trying to make an argument for Cicero bending his account of the Brandenburg campaign I would suggest that maybe it didn’t last into the cold of winter as the application of the quote would demand. But the extra information you now provide makes that seem less likely, even if I assume it is mostly coming from Widukind too. You are of course be perfectly right to point out that exactly the same exercise with Classical antetypes can also be performed on Liudprand’s text, and at the point where I note his difference from Widukind too, rather than this later one. Nonetheless, what is actually in your book offered the possibilities which I exploited here as examples of technique.

  2. Jonathan,your quote from the translated list of causes of deaths described in Professor Bachrach’s book omits “pestilence”.

    Also, the coin of Charlemagne most nearly resembles a later Emperor, particularly Constantine and his successors.

    • I think, indeed, that Constantine is the archetype for the coin (as indeed he is for ours!) but I wanted one of the Twelve Cæsars so as better to justify the illustration.

      The quote from Professor Bachrach’s book is correct as stands; I take his point to be that Widukind did not want to count illness as one of the things that got the Hevelli (quite possibly because it didn’t).

  3. Antoni Grabowski

    Being to some extent called out in the note 8, let me make some remarks on the discussed matter. I read with great pleasure prof. Bachrach’s book and agree with many things said on how Ottonians ruled, but at the same time I concentrate in my own work on the ways chroniclers constructed their narrations, leaving aside to what extent they replicate the reality. Thus I will concentrate here on the narratives themselves.
    The problem with Liudprand and Widukind’s accounts and the differences between them comes from the different concepts behind author’s vision. This is nicely seen in Arnulf case, but it is not limited to that (a lot of this differences constituted my PhD, someday hopefully published). In discussing Liudprand’s account, the story does not begin with Henry moving his army into Bavaria, nor even Arnulf’s return from Hungarians (where he ran to hide from Conrad I). The story begins with the rise of Conrad I and the very short description of his reign.
    Liudprand wanted to convey an image of Ottonians who were better than any other ruler of Europe. This was done by highlighting them as king’s who never shed Christian blood. Therefore Bishop of Cremona’s narration emphasizes that for example Lotharingia was from beginning part of Henry’s realm and to do that, he introduced Giselbert of Lotharingia into Conrad’s deathbed scene.
    Therefore Bavaria and Arnulf are set up to show Henry’s qualities as a reluctant king (Björn Weiler’s rex renitens) and at the same time, king who will refrain from fighting fellow Christians. To this Liudprand conceived the story of Henry inviting Arnulf to a talk (which latter took as an invitation to a duel) and in the well written poem Liudprand presented the dilemma Arnulf had: does he really want to kill Christians? Thus Henry who could defeat his enemy in a battle, or even in a duel, but instead chose to use words leaving sword to fight of the Hungarians (which happened immediately afterward in Liudprand’s text), becomes an ideal king in Europe full of rulers more willing to kill other Christians than fight the outside enemies.
    Widukind on the other hand was more interested in making a comparison between week and ineptitude Conrad, who in series of campaign failed to pacify the kingdom, and Henry who easily attained this. Conrad attempted to take from Henry’s hands the Duchy of Saxony and then died in the effect of failed incursion into Arnulf’s Bavaria. Henry, who had fortuna atque mores easily dominated the kingdom with swift movement of his army forcing Burchard and Arnulf to accept his reign.
    Therefore Widukind’s description is more “militaristic”, than Liudprand’s. I would refrain from saying which version is closer or further from the truth, as both clearly have certain narrative schemes and motifs behind them. More so, the rhetorical flourishes does not make a text more fictitious, but rather, a “better” written from the literature stand point. Not to mention that sometimes a narration full of rhetorical tools and quotations from classics, could at the same time be fairly faithful in reproducing what happened in the past.
    Nevertheless, if I was a military historian I would probably (as prof. Bachrach) go with Widukind as the basis/main source for “warfare”. The same goes when talking about politics.

    There is also a bigger question of for whom Liudprand wrote. I would not say that the intended audience was Otto, but nevertheless Antapodosis was written as some sort of court’s propaganda that was meant to show that Otto deserved the title of emperor. There are other propositions, but in my opinion they do not hold the water.

    The mentioned in the note article, in which I would probably change a thing or two, is available here: https://www.academia.edu/3162140/_Duel_between_Henry_I_and_Arnulf_of_Bavaria_according_to_Liudprand_of_Cremona

    • Aha, that’s handy as I couldn’t see a way I was easily going to get hold of that. Thankyou much more, however, for the erudite explanation of our authors’ agendas! If I ever do point students at this post as a lesson in source critique, they are going to get some very fine examples! I also hope that your Ph. D. makes it to print…

    • Also, I have amended the misspelling of your first name in n. 8, sorry about that!

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  5. There are plenty of parallel cases here. Widukind’s near-contemporary, Richer of Rheims, similarly provides very detailed tactical accounts of battles and sieges, but his strong familiarity with Sallust, Caesar and Josephus have meant that historians have traditionally ignored 80% of what he says in all four books of his histories as totally unreliable, though I beg to differ from them. What I find interesting, following in effect from a very insightful point made by Guy Halsall in “War and Society in the Barbarian West”, is that Latin historians writing post-950 tend to be a lot more interested in warfare than those from the preceding 500 years. Like, whereas earlier we typically get historians saying “a battle happened at x, y beat z, many thousands of warriors died and the wolves and crows supped mightily”, monastic historians of the tenth to twelfth centuries like Widukind, Richer, Bruno of Quedlinburg, Orderic Vitalis, Abbot Suger etc provide us with very detailed and often quite tactical descriptions of battles. Why central medieval monastic historians were more interested in battles and warfare than their early medieval counterparts certainly deserves further exploration.

    • Well, OK, let’s run with that, but I think it is worth being aware that the road on which we’re running had been partly laid by the Carolingian Renaissance, complete with its revival of access to and enthusiasm about all those Classical forebears and possible exemplars. Is there a good way to rid ourselves of the suspicion that the change here is in the models for such writing, more than the mode?

      • I definitely think the legacy of the Carolingian renaissance can’t be ignored, though some elements of it might actually be very late Carolingian/ post-Carolingian revival – I remember reading an article/ book chapter of Rosamond McKitterick’s that I’ve now forgotten the name of, that demonstrated that the level of textual transmission for Caesar’s Commentaries was very low (like one or two manuscripts) in the ninth century, but picked up a bit more in the tenth century (in time for Richer) and later (I remember from doing the “Norman Conquest Special Subject” how William of Poitiers gives a lengthy comparison of the Hastings campaign to Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain).

        At the same time though, I think its also because worlds are coming together. Historians like Widukind of Corvey, William of Poitiers and Abbot Suger (I might also add in Wipo of Burgundy, William of Apulia, Cosmas of Prague, the Gallus Anonymous and, at a huge stretch, Galbert of Bruges for good measure) were writing with courtly audiences in mind that they wanted to edify and entertain with stories of virtuous rulership, great battles and heroic deeds. Obviously, that sometimes clashed with the desire of some of them to follow classical literary models too closely – a few years ago, George Garnett and I agreed that the reason why William of Poitiers’ “Gesta Guillelmi” was so rarely copied even in his own day (to the point that there’s actually been no known extant manuscript copy of him after the fire at Ashburnham House in 1731) was because his Latin prose was too ornate and classicising for most Anglo-Norman courtiers to actually be able to follow it, whereas its content and themes didn’t provide any useful models for ecclesiastical historians and hagiographers. Meanwhile, courtly history writers aren’t really to be found in the fifth to eighth century West, and while the Carolingians generate court historians and biographers, their preoccupations seem to me to be different (a little bit more high-minded, we might say) to those of the tenth to early twelfth centuries. Maybe its even possible to do a reverse Stephen Jaeger on this and argue

        Meanwhile, in the case of Richer of Rheims we have someone, though he’s writing for Gerbert and the community at Rheims (a very ecclesiastical audience, not obviously interested in detailed depictions of the wars of the West Frankish kings), whose father was a warrior (of what exact social status we cannot know) in the military household of Louis IV and seems to have gotten his information of the campaigns against Hugh the Great from 946 – 951 and against Reginar of Hainault in 956 directly from him. William of Poitiers claims to have been a knight in his youth before he went and studied at Poitiers cathedral school – here I politely disagree with Garnett, who claims William of Poitiers was either using a claiming authority through personal experience topos (common in ancient writers) or straight up lying about his past and that he got all his knowledge of warfare and descriptions of battles from ancient writers like Sallust, Caesar, Josephus and Vegetius. Abbot Suger obviously knew a lot about warfare because we know that he himself participated it both in his capacity as an abbot i.e. fortifying St Denis’ monastic satellites on the Loire against Hugh le Puiset, and as a statesman i.e., serving as one of Louis the Fat’s advisers and helping him raise and lead troops for campaigns like the one against Emperor Henry V. And Orderic Vitalis, whose knowledge of classical literature was somewhat more limited, got a lot of his knowledge of warfare from the knights who were guests and patrons at Saint-Evroul – he probably got his reports of the battle of Bremule in 1119 from knights who had fought there themselves when King Henry I visited the abbey not long afterwards, and his interest in Spain (similar to Raoul Glaber and my old friend Adhemar of Chabannes a century earlier, who got it from the Burgundian and Aquitainian knights who went over there c.1000 to fight against the Umayyads’ final northern incursions) came from the fact that so many Norman knights who were patrons/ guests of St Evroul had fought in Spain.

        Finally, lets not forget audience expectations. These writers would be writing for audiences who could remember these battles first hand, and could contradict them on what they got wrong. Here, I’m reminded of Dominic Sandbrook saying to Tom Holland on the Rest is History Podcast (which has hit the news just now about Athelstan winning their world cup of English monarchs – as someone who went to school in and currently works as a part-time bartender in Kingston-upon-Thames, I’m proud) that the difficulty of writing about contemporary history, in his case British history from c,1945 – 1991, is that there’ll always be people who say to you “that’s not how I remember it!” So, while this obviously needs further exploration (and could be the beginnings of something) my current view is that we really are talking about a change in modalities (along with backgrounds, aims and audience expectations) of historical writing, rather than models.

        • Agreeing with George Garnett is not easy; I’ve tried and failed! Well done on managing it even on one point :-)

          As to the actual proposition, it makes sense to me. There is obviously either a continuing growth or blossoming of the seeds of Carolingian literate reform in the tenth century, or something new was starting which the political collapse of the era has prevented people recognising. The only point against your argument I’d immediately raise is that what you say of Abbot Suger, that he led men to war, would also have been true of many a Carolingian prelate or abbot; yet as you say, that kind of writing is missing then. Even Nithard, for all his uniqueness and utility, doesn’t write about the wars he was actually in with the detail of William of Poitiers (though, as you say, taking William as any normal measurement may not be wise). Another factor that applies in both eras mutatis mutandis is the audience, as well. Theodulf’s poems and some other texts were addressed to or pronounced before men who had fought wars for Charlemagne and Louis; Ermold’s was by someone who’d fought in them himself, however badly. But they were not trying to write what the C10th people were. Is the answer as simple as: without the Carolingians’ reforming and penitential agenda overdriving cultural production, people were able to look at their new copies of Classical stuff without Alcuin’s ghost breathing, “What has Cicero to do with Christ?” down their neck? Is there in fact a C10th Renaissance as well as all the others?*

          * N. B. I would not be the first person to suggest this: see from very long ago Robert Sabatino Lopez, “Still Another Renaissance?”, American Historical Review Vol. 57 (Washington DC 1951), pp. 1–21, DOI: 10.2307/1849475.

          • Allan McKinley

            What’s the minimum time required between renaissances before we just have to admit that nothing was actually lost or forgotten and things were just carrying on?

            • I think we’re still missing eleventh-century, thirteenth-century, oh yes, and, any agreement about when things stopped carrying on in the first place. How do you feel about a seventh-century renaissance to tide us over between Cassiodorus and Bede and Chrodegang?

              • I suppose what there is agreement on is that the classical tradition in its late antique form doesn’t go on in the West beyond the early seventh century. Peter Brown didn’t go beyond 600 for the West Roman sphere in “The world of Late Antiquity”, instead finishing up with Gregory the Great as a suitably (almost poetically) transitional figure between ancient Roman and medieval Latin Christian culture. Isidore of Seville might similarly be seen as being the last late antique intellectual – he still received some education in Greek and Hebrew, and his Etymologies is the final flourish of the late antique movement to compile, summarise and comment on the classics. And Ralph Mathiesen has argued for Desiderius of Cahors (584 – 655) being the “Last of the Romans” – he certainly was the last practioner of the classical Latin epistolary tradition. Certainly, I haven’t seen late antiquarians trying to claim the Venerable Bede as belonging to their period. So maybe there’s a case for a mini-renaissance having happened in Anglo-Saxon England around 700. But yeah, I do think the Carolingianists get first dibs on the whole renaissance thing – the kind of classical revival they were doing was very clearly on another scale, quantitatively and qualitatively, to any of the survivals/ mini-renaissances in the period c.550 – 750 (apologies in advance to the Merovingianists, lest they get angry at me).

                Drawing boundaries between the different renaissances from the Carolingian renaissance on is a lot more difficult. Of course now, the old view that the tenth century is an “age of iron and lead” or a mini-Dark Age sandwiched between the Carolingian ninth century and the twelfth century renaissance is unsustainable, even if the volume of surviving manuscripts for the tenth is somewhat lower than for the ninth. If anything, as I was kind of suggesting earlier, it sees a branching out and deepening of the Carolingian project now that the Carolingian court itself and its ideology of correctio is no longer at the rudder – hence why Richer and Widukind can write such predominantly secular histories modelled on Sallust, Caesar and Josephus that focus on wars, civil strife and the deeds of great men. Its also in the tenth century that the Ciceronian ethos takes over in terms of rhetorical and literary education, thanks to the influence of Bruno of Cologne in Ottonian Germany and Gerbert of Aurillac at Rheims cathedral school in West Francia, for whom most of the notable intellectuals of the next generation – Richer of Rheims (an old friend of mine), King Robert the Pious, Adalbero of Laon (another old friend of mine), Fulbert of Chartres, Dudo of Saint-Quentin etc – were either his past pupils or pupils of his pupils who then went to teach at other emerging West Frankish cathedral school powerhouses like Laon and Chartres. And for the other parts of the trivium, Gerbert does a lot to promote Porphyry and Aristotle for logic, helping cement the place they’d have on the central medieval curriculum. Gerbert of Aurillac also provides a valuable bridge between the Carolingian renaissance and the twelfth century one in terms of science – bringing in astrolables, armillary spheres, abaci and Hindu Arabic numerals from the great nexus of cutting edge Islamic scientific knowledge that is the Marca Hispania, and improving on them by inventing the sighting tube (as well as a hydraulic organ). and in the opening dec later Hermannus Contractus carries on with a lot of Gerbert’s work on these things. Both of their calculations regarding the position of the equator, the tropic of cancer and the lunar cycle have since been proven to be correct. And of course, the tenth century is a real boom time for musical innovation – almost all the figures I’ve mentioned were composers or music theorists of some kind or another, and my main man Adhemar of Chabannes seems to have (almost) invented modern muscial notation. And lets not forget the (slightly belated) exporting of the Carolingian renaissance to Anglo-Saxon England in the tenth century. So in the end, the tenth century is in some ways a continuation/ widening/ deepening of the Carolingian renaissance but is also in many ways a renaissance in its own right, so Lopez (whom you mentioned earlier) was probably onto something after all.

                When exactly the twelfth century renaissance begins is debatable, but everyone seems to agree on sometime between 1050 and 1100. As for when it ends, that’s much less certain – some say its over and done with pretty much by 1160, whereas others (including Charles Homer Haskins himself) see it as going all the way up to the mid-thirteenth century, when it gets replaced by full-blown scholasticism, with all the implicit negative stereotypes that term can create. But if it goes that late, then not only does it run into the mini-renaissance that Simon Doubleday argues took place in thirteenth century Spain under Alfonso the Wise, but also the arguable beginnings of the Italian renaissance. Some historians like Ronald G Witt argue that Lovato Lovati (1241 – 1309) and Albertino Mussato (1261 – 1329) were the first humanists, not Francesco Petrarch who is traditionally called the father of humanism, and as always there’s the question of where does Dante Alighieri fit into all of this – people in the old school cultural history mindset like to claim him as both the apotheosis of medieval intellectual life and as the first stirring of a new age. Meanwhile, I’d argue that some pretty important shifts are happening north of the Alps in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, especially with respect to emerging vernacular translations of classical Roman texts. So yeah, my view is that is that all boundaries in cultural and hisory are fuzzy really, but lets give the Carolingians credit where its due for setting this whole train in motion.

                Of course, just as you can argue for all kinds of medieval renaissances, you can also argue from the flipside that the Renaissance is itself very medieval c.f. John Marenbon “The Problem with Paganism: Pagans and Philosophers from Augustine to Leibniz” (2015)

                • Much to think with there! When I have to teach the C15th Renaissance, indeed—a burden of which I may now be quit now that we’ve rebuilt our first-year provision at Leeds—I do tend to do it with Dante, because there is someone wilfully trying to do something Classical, but in the vernacular (as, of course, were the Classical writers in some sense, and let’s not suppose that Dante’s poetry is in ordinary street Italian either!), with numerous Classical reference points, but reference points which sit happily next to Biblical and indeed medieval ones (as long as they’re Italian-relevant medieval ones) without apparent distinction. One can mount many arguments about the novelty of what he was doing and whether it was the beginning of the Next Big Thing, but one thing I think it is hard to say is that he saw himself at the turning of a cultural era, rather than as its continuing accumulation. So was he a Renaissance man who hadn’t realised that he was at the beginning of a movement, a medieval man doing something new which the Renaissance would later realise more fully, or have we just invented this silly category only to find that it doesn’t fit properly around the things we wish it to contain?

                  So to take that back to the Carolingians vs. the C10th, and including the agreement we seem to have reached in the other sub-thread, there is, I think, a viable debate (and not a new one at all) about whether ‘Renaissance’ is the right word for what we see here. The Carolingians, being as you say driven mainly by correctio however loosely we begin to realise they expected that standard to be applied, were not, I think, trying to revive the culture of Classical Rome and Greece; they were after the correctest possible Latin and the Christianity of more or less the fifth century. If they wanted to be Romans, it was Mathisen’s last Romans, and they wouldn’t have been at all happy with Virgil as a guide to the Christian Paradise. And I can buy your argument about the C10th not having those concerns, and would suggest that that was true at least partly because what the Carolingian effort had built was now too diffused and widespread, and cultural control now too broken up and accordingly no longer single-minded enough, to keep people who were interested in that stuff from pursuing their interests. And as long as people were still, ultimately, happy with Virgil as the ultimate Latin style guide, it would be to his era of Latinity and culture that true learned status adhered, I guess. So, fine. But if this is a continuity of intellectual development, as all the above seems to imply, and if we wish to keep the term ‘Renaissance’ in play for better or for worse, is the position we now reach that the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ only became a ‘Renaissance’ after the Carolingians?

                  • I really like your response, especially the provocative question at the end. Personally, I like to see it as kind of big bang that the Carolingians set in motion, with all the different galaxies, stars and planets emerging with each successive renaissance, representing the different strands of the classical tradition/ classical reception that have developed in the West since the ninth century.

                    Also the whole proposition “the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ only became a ‘Renaissance’ after the Carolingians?” got me thinking. Of course, one of the most important legacies of the late medieval Italian renaissance, albeit one with deeper roots (as hinted at in my earlier responses), is the idea that the high literary culture of the first century BC and AD in Rome represents the pinnacle of achievement of Roman civilisation, and that we in the present day should look to that first and foremost. But of course, there have always been many Romes to look back to – early republican Rome, late republican Rome, Pagan imperial Rome and Christian imperial Rome (not to forget East Rome or Byzantium as it has retrospectively been called). To the Carolingians, it was of course Christian Rome that mattered most and held hegemonic status, but even then there were some who wanted to deviate from that – Einhard if we’re to go by Stuart Airlie’s interpretation of the Life of Charlemagne as a defence of lay culture in opposition to the hyper-moralised, penitential regime of Louis the Pious’ court; Theodulf of Orleans in his praise of Ovid (there does seem to have been more interest in the metamorphoses before the eleventh century than previously thought), Terrence and Horace; Louis the German modelling his seal on a naturalistic relief of the Emperor Hadrian etc. But as we’ve said before, once the hold of the Carolingians weakened and centres of cultural production became more diffuse and diverse, more Romes could come to the fore – late Republican Rome from the tenth century (Gerbert’s Ciceronianism and Widukind of Corvey and Richer of Rheims’ use of first century BC historiographical models and technique), Augustan Rome in the eleventh and twelfth (even Guibert de Nogent admitted that he’d tried writing Ovidian style poems, with all the smuttiness, in his youthful days in the monastic scriptorium) and so on, and with that the purposes of classical revival equally multiply until we fourteenth century French knights reading Livy, Lucan, Valerius Maximus, Suetonius and Vegetius (which contain models from three different Romes) in attempt to reform chivalry neo-Roman style in the wake of the defeats the French are suffering in the Hundred Years’ War. So I think I’d see it as an ever-expanding renaissance that’s forever broadening out into all kinds of different strands, each responding to different interests, needs and circumstances which make different periods in ancient Roman history/ different Roman authors appeal.

          • I think that probably is the answer. No tenth to twelfth century court had such a moralised atmosphere, penitential atmosphere as that of Louis the Pious – bar maybe Otto III (and he didn’t last that long), that simply would not be seen again until Louis IX, and by that point the proliferation of centres of cultural production was just too great for the court to control them all, and the goalposts for lay culture and religion had undoubtedly shifted a lot. Thus Jean de Joinville could write a royal hagiography of St Louis for the French court that could both celebrate the king’s personal morals and reforming agenda but also be the author’s own crusade memoir that goes into huge amounts of detail about battles, adventure in exotic locations and chivalric deeds – definitely not the sort of thing a Carolingian courtier would write, besides the obvious. And getting back to the tenth century, as hinted at before, the court of Otto the Great was certainly not that of Louis the Pious, even if we don’t accept Gerd Althoff’s vision of Ottonian Germany as an “archaic” society dominated by Germanic heroic age values – if we were to accept the Stephen Jaeger view of Ottonian and Salian court culture, then the ethos is still very secular, albeit of a more classicising kind. Thus Widukind of Corvey would have been more than welcome to write at length about campaigns, battles and heroic deeds either way. Likewise, Gerbert of Aurillac is no Alcuin or Benedict of Aniane, and so Richer was very much welcome to write about the wars of the West Frankish kings following the models for rhetoric and narrative laid out by Cicero and with quotes and paraphrases from Sallust, Caesar and Josephus provided where most fitting, either because they matched up to how things actually were or because no actual factual information could be provided. And over the course of the eleventh to twelfth centuries, centres of cultural production just keep multiplying and diversifying.

            • Oh, and, one small challenge:

              No tenth to twelfth century court had such a moralised atmosphere, penitential atmosphere as that of Louis the Pious – bar maybe Otto III…

              What about Æthelred II of England?

              • Ah, I forgot about him, and yeah I do buy into the arguments of people like Levi Roach and Charles Insley that Aethelred II did indeed have a penitential state, and more broadly I’m hugely sympathetic to their attempts to integrate late Anglo-Saxon England into our current understanding of ninth to eleventh century political culture from the Carolingian and Ottonian experience. But, at the court of Aethelred the Unready, and in tenth century England more generally, there of course isn’t much history writing (at least in terms of what survives) other than the ASC and Ealdorman Aethelweard’s Latin chronicle.

                • And those are not insignificant texts, but since one derives from the other and the other was started the previous century, even if it was now multiplex, I’d have to concede your point. Though by head of population, if we only knew those numbers, it might still be as substantial an offering as West or East Francia’s…

            • Antoni Grabowski

              Liudprand, who, as far as we can say, was much closer to the Ottonian court than Widukind, combined references to Virgil with placing in Otto’s hands the ultimate relic-weapon that gave him victory over every possible enemy. I have then some doubts if “the ethos is still very secular”.

              • I can see how, if we start from there to think of the Oriflamme and the cult of Charlemagne, we can build a bridge from this argument very quickly into the later-period one about whether or not chivalry and the ideology of knighthood was religious. If that analogy is fair, we may be looking at two different definitions of ‘secular’ and its antonym: one belonging to those who lived within the category, and one from the Church which tried to constrain the former…

        • Antoni Grabowski

          The idea that authors had to describe things as they took place, otherwise audience could protest is rather misguided. Remaining in the tenth century, the stark differences in how Liudprand and Widukind described certain events shows that they did not write with that idea in mind. We even know from later Middle Ages examples where obviously false narratives were presented in the presence of eye witnesses and they did not protest.

          • This is always a good point, especially given how much modern audiences enjoy what the English call ‘tall tales’, alternate history and indeed straightforward fantasy. However, a counter-argument in this might be that we don’t know that Liudprand and Widukind wrote for the same audiences. I used, indeed, to assume from his text that Liudprand wrote for quite a tight coterie of fellow churchmen, probably Italians, who liked scurrilous gossip, such as Rather of Verona – and then I saw a paper about how fast Liudprand’s text circulated through various German monasteries, even in his lifetime, and had to reconsider. I’ve still come to no conclusions, since it’s not a research area of mine, but I wonder what you think?

            • Antoni Grabowski

              Even if they wrote for completely different audience, they still were people who were witnesses to the events described. To give though much more striking example from later Middle Ages: during the Battle of Grunwald Wladyslaw Jageillo commanded his army from the camp. Later the battle was described to the Pope in the presence of the participants in it and there Wladyslaw stormed the Teutonic Knights on a horse in thy typical heroic fashion. They eyewitnesses had no problem with that. It could be said that history is not only what happened, but also what should happen and what is pleasing to happen.
              As for whom Liudprand wrote, in my opinon, Antapodosis wasn’t written with one type of audience in mind. Telling is that the oldest surviving manuscript is from German bishop. That is not all, as while Liudprand used Greek which possibly would limit his audience to people like Rather, he wanted to be read by much larger group of people including those who couldn’t understand Greek and therefore provided not only transcription but also translation of all Greek words and also added some explanations of Latin words.
              Thus, if I were to speculate freely, I would see Liudprand’s intended audience as broadly elite of the Ottonian kingdom and a few Italians here and there. On one level it was to show that Otto is the real emperor (even if not crowned at the time) and on the other it gave reasons why Italy has to be conquered (rather intended for those who would conquer, than those to be conquered).
              As for circulation, it is quite telling how often Antapodosis was read and used by later authors. It looks like in “Germany” and “Benelux” it was much more popular and easily available than Widukind. The problem though, there is still need for proper critical editions of most the the eleventh to thirteenth century works that used Liudprand and only then it will be possible to say what manuscripts were read and used.

              • Thankyou, Dr Grabowski, that leaves me at least much better informed. It is peculiar to think – and in some ways revealing that it strikes one as peculiar – of a medieval author actually trying to achieve wide circulation of his or her writings; we usually seem to assume that they wrote for a particular patron or interest group (as with Widukind, whom I see to recall is thought to have been writing directly for the court?).

                Presumably, also, the wide circulation and wide use of his work – as well, I suppose, as the fact that he was known to have had contact with the Iberian Peninsula – is what made him an attractive basis for the fabrication of chronicles in early modern Spain; his material was available but would not have been well-known where the fabrications were to be circulated.

                • Antoni Grabowski

                  “Dr Grabowski” sounds like if I was a medievalist “Dr Dre” or someone like that.
                  As for problem of “wide circulation”, Justin Lake argues that chronicles were written to be read aloud to a larger audience. I do have many doubts about the extent of they were read, but it is worthwhile to entertain the idea that these chronicles had quite large audience if they were read at the court (king’s, duke’s, bishop’s etc.). It would be much larger group than typically assumed. Liudprand and Widukind with their clear “narration blocks” could easily be adapted to such public reading.
                  Widukind dedicated his work to Otto’s daughter Mathilda, but such dedications could be a topoi. Antapodosis was written for Recemund of Elvira, but not only the text after prologue doesn’t show such intention, there is no manuscript evidence it ever was near Iberian peninsula in tenth century.
                  The false-Liudprand is fascinating case and from time to time I wonder if other often used medieval chronicles that exist only in sixteenth and seventeenth editions were creations of the editors and forgers.

                  • I can imagine Liudprand’s and Widukind’s works both being read to bigger audiences, though with slightly different effects. There are definitely also some works whose (intended) audience I can imagine only being very small, however: my top examples would be Prokopios’s Anecdota and John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, the latter of which is of course not a chronicle, for what difference that may make. I think Lake’s work is provocative, but I have seen it used (not least by Bernard and David Bachrach, just to bring us temporarily closer to the original subject) as a source of rules for interpretation of the source material, and I feel firstly that Lake tends that way himself and secondly that if any such rules existed at the time (i. e. conventions of genre and so forth) then surely they were, as an English saying goes, ‘made to be broken’, by anyone who had the imagination to do so.

          • That’s a very insightful point, Dr Grabowksi. Thank you. I guess that at the end of the day it comes down to whether the intended audience would have wanted things to be presented as they happened or whether they wanted things to be exaggerated, distorted or falsified for whatever reason, and how that aligned with the author’s own interests and intentions, and to what extent we as historians can be aware of these different factors and motivations at play. But to give an example a bit on the flipside I’ve just been reminded of, consider the contrast between the narratives of the events leading up to the Norman conquest presented by William of Poitiers and the Bayeux tapestry, to whom Odo of Bayeux, a figure very much enmeshed in it all, was both part of the intended audiences of and a patron of. One portrays William the Conqueror as clearly being promised the throne by Edward the Confessor and outright demonises Harold, while the latter portrays Harold as quite a heroic figure (i.e. saving the Norman soldiers from drowning on the Brittany campaign), implies that Harold swearing the oath to Duke William in 1064 was reprimanded by Edward the Confessor (a point also made a few decades later by Eadmer, a historian also based in Kent like the embroiders of the Bayeux tapestry) and appears to imply that Harold was Edward’s legitimate successor, albeit then being crowned by the corrupt Archbishop Stigand – rather the tapestry’s justification for the Norman invasion lies primarily in the breaking of the oath on sacred relics that Harold made and the support of the papacy for the Norman invasion and the concomitant church reform agenda. So the same audiences could sometimes be willing to entertain contradiction of accounts, and I’m sure that’s the same with the Ottonians and Widukind and Liutprand – both ultimately portrayed them as highly successful and in the right, so it didn’t matter if the substance of the accounts somewhat deviated from each other.

            • I should really just let this conversation run—though I should also apologise for the way WordPress keeps queuing your comments for moderation so that you only get each others’ replies when I log in to free them from jail—but I do wonder if we have to entertain the entertainment of contradictory views by the same people at the same time, or if actually what we are seeing in cases like that is change over time in the preferred presentation of events. In the wake of the Norman Conquest, and the various English rebellions – including by Harold’s sons, if rebellion is the right word for that – I can imagine the version of legitimacy preferred at William I’s court being quite changeable… Of course that just leads one to try either to date the works by the views or the views by the works and probably both at once in a circle – as with Einhard’s Vita Karoli – but it’s still interesting to think with.

              • Antoni Grabowski

                I think there are multiple things going on at the same time when it comes to composing narratives that fundamentally differ when it comes to the “facts”. On one side there is the change You write about, the past is always in need of re-evaluation.
                At the same time there are other reasons why there are contradictions and the witnesses did not protest (or the authors did not care). One is that it is not always clear if the aim was to write what happened truthfully. Here the idea of ‘recitatio’ is interesting, that is, repeating the text without asserting its truthfulness. It reminds somewhat Bede’s ‘law of history’. There is no problem to include unreliable or even false information, as long as they fit the general narrative.
                The other thing that has to be considered is how the narration is constructed. That is, the themes and topoi shape not only the literary part of the narrative, but also influence the facts (it does not mean that the narration is automatically false if it is set according to the topoi and schemes, as reality often follows the structures of narrative texts).
                As for trying to date works, it is entertaining, but to what extent we know what were the views at which time, that is not based on the works we try to date? It is something like with genealogies, often the statement if the particular medieval author was correct is based on our modern knowledge. The modern knowledge is, after you look through footnotes, based on seventeenth century works, which were based on the medieval author in question.

                • That last paragraph speaks to me deeply; I have become infamous in certain circles for spoiling people’s fun by tracking those factoids to their ultimate, faulty, sources. As to the former, I suppose it raises the question: if we accept it, and I’ve no reason not to, at what point did it become important to distinguish hi-story from story by asserting that it really happened? Is this an Enlightenment declaration against the kind of fun our authors were having, to which in our supposed post-truth era we are maybe even returning, or are we back into Renaissances again, or is there some other sort of division developed between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’?

                  • Antoni Grabowski

                    I don’t think there was one point from which it was important to distinguish “fact” and “fiction”. Already in thirteenth century Alberic of Trois-Fontaines remarked that some things were only songs, while other narratives were more trustworthy, but what seems to me important is that there needs to be a passage of time between the author and his sources to be critical of them. On the other hand, it seems that Alberic was at that time in minority in his criticism of sources.
                    I’m not also sure if we can point at Enlightenment as a good division, as in many ways the authors of late eighteenth and nineteenth century enjoyed their own versions of fictionalising history. The more modern scholarship I read, I begin to think that for a lot of scholars this distinction between “facts” and “fiction” depends on whether they see useful to call the text as one or the other. In many ways we always were in post-truth era.

                    • I was hoping for something more sophisticated than the idea I’d tried, and indeed you have provided, thankyou. I’m reminded of being told that one Insular hagiographer of the thirteenth century—I think Jocelyn of Furness?—said in one of his hagiographies that actually it was an advantage that he had no sources at all for this one, because that allowed him to write the Life the saint ought to have had. Presumably there was no problem with that. Ironically, since I was getting this second-hand in a seminar conversation, I can’t actually establish this writing as fact either…

            • Antoni Grabowski

              Oh, the dichotomy that the audience “would have wanted things to be presented as they happened or whether they wanted things to be exaggerated, distorted or falsified for whatever reason” is not entirely correct. The exaggerated, distorted narration could be in various situation more true than the description of what really happened. The question is, what the author wanted the audience to gather from the text. The evil-doer could just die, or could die in the manner that fit the whole narration. The later way would be false in terms of fact, but would be true in terms of the narrative. Looking this way, I don’t think medieval (and modern) people cared much about eliminating one or the another. All dependent if the tale was engaging and they felt it was true.

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