Monthly Archives: March 2019

Maybe not Fat but still not Great

I’m going to the very end of my backlog here; I wrote this post pretty much entire on a train back to Leeds from the Institute of Historical Research on Armistice Day of 2015, and it’s been waiting for its moment, and for me to do the footnotes, ever since. As there is still marking just now, it seems to be that moment at last, so here you are. I’ve updated the editorial voice a bit in the set-up, but I’ll stand by the argument; I wouldn’t post it otherwise! So, here goes.

I was profiting that term (the one in which I wrote this post’s first draft) by teaching much closer than usual to my research interests. I then had a second-year course on the Carolingians that made me work over afresh many things that I thought I knew about everyone’s favourite early medieval imperial dynasty and their rule, much of which I hadn’t properly thought about for a decade and a half, and also made me read many things that I should have read then but didn’t, as you’ve already seen. And a proximate result of this was that for two days in November 2015 I was reading, at top speed, Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire, by Simon MacLean.1 Yep, sorry, Simon, this post is about your book.

Cover of Simon MacLean, Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire (Cambridge 2003)

Cover of Simon MacLean, Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire (Cambridge 2003)

So, first things first, this is a good book and I wish I’d read it sooner. Again, sorry Simon; it came out while I was first teaching and by the time that had stopped it was thesis write-up time and I wasn’t taking in anything new and then after that, well, life. Anyway, you mention the Spanish March maybe once. But I’m still sorry. For those who haven’t read it, it focuses on the reign of the last man to rule the whole Carolingian Empire, Charles III, unfortunately known to history as Charles the Fat to distinguish him from Charles I (the Great), II (the Bald) and a myriad of other Charleses of the era who didn’t get numbers because, as eleventh-century Andalusi scholar al-‘Udrī wisely said, “all the kings of the Franks are called Charles”.2 He was son of Louis the German, who was son of Louis the Pious who was son of Charlemagne, he was King of Alemannia from 875, of Bavaria and Italy from 879, Emperor of the Romans from 881, of Franconia and Saxony from 882 and from 884 or 885 King of Lotharingia and the Western Franks too, that being the whole lot, which he kept only till 887, the year of his death. So that’s our frame.

Now, Charles has had a bad press from the sources and the historians who have taken them literally: supposedly an epileptic (or else a victim when young of demonic possession), he is reported to have lost almost all his battles, and most importantly of all those against the Vikings, whom he largely paid off instead, to have relied to exclusion on one particular corrupt archbishop as chief counsellor, to have failed to contain the ambitions of the aristocracy to build up their own separate regional power-bases, not to have produced any legitimate children and finally to have been deposed by his half-nephew, Arnulf of Carinthia, who then went on to start saving Germany from the Magyars. Such, anyway, are the stereotypes.

Seal of King Charles the Fat

Simon’s cover-image, perhaps the only contemporary illustration of the man in question, the seal of King Charles the Fat, calling himself, you may notice, Karolus Mag[nu]s, Charles the Great, and showing no particular signs of overweight I’d say. Image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Simon therefore goes back to the sources, makes a good effort to catch them all and to compare versions of the key ones, includes the charters alongside the narratives as no-one has before and attempts to save Charles’s reputation. There is, admittedly, no getting round the deposition by Arnulf or the lack of children, those are things that are true, but Simon puts the former firmly in the context of the latter and shows Charles trying to solve that problem, including eventually by divorcing his wife on the somewhat unlikely grounds of non-consummation; she even stood up before the court, declared herself still to be virgin and went off to be an abbess.3 Otherwise, Simon more or less discounts the childhood epilepsy, which is otherwise written up at the time as a surprising, unhelpful and shortlived monastic impulse rather than an actual physical fit; he shows Charles’s armies frequently effective against their enemies and Charles able, for the first time in many years, to field armies from several bits of the empire at once; and he rightly points out that paying off the Vikings, whatever may have been thought about it in the Eastern Frankish realms, had been a working strategy for two generations in the West and obviously a survivable one.

Most importantly, because it was not necessarily obvious before whereas those things should probably have been, Simon goes through Charles’s charters, paying attention to where they were issued for whom and at whose behest, and is able to show not just that many other counsellors surrounded Charles as well as Archbishop Liutward of Vercelli, the supposed evil grand vizier of the realm, and that even Liutward, ever-present only in the early part of the reign, only really got to pull strings for people in Italy, while many other major nobles also served Charles loyally, including winning his battles for him.4 Most interestingly of all, I think, by way of emphasising what one key source also says, how very unexpected and rapid Charles’s fall from power was, Simon sets out something quite striking: that almost all of the major nobles who would in fact become kings in the immediate wake of Charles’s death, though big players already, were big players in the areas where they came to rule because Charles himself had put them there; it was his grants that made them the men on the spot, rather than them having been able to inherit a spot in which their family had been investing for decades and finally get free of the kings to rule it in their own right.5 I find this perfectly convincing and of course, it puts a big hole in arguments about the rise of aristocratic separatism in the Carolingian era (and pushes even more of the change necessary to maintain such arguments about what is, essentially, feudalization, into the all-important tenth century!).

a diploma of Charles the Fat to Otbert, Provost of Langres, 15 January 887

One of those there charters, a diploma of Charles the Fat to Otbert, Provost of Langres, 15 January 887; image from Ferdinand Lot & Philippe Lauer (edd.), Diplomata Karolinorum. Recueil de reproductions en facsimilé des actes originaux des souverains Carolingiens conservés dans les archives et bibliothèques de France (Paris 1936-), vol. VII, no 10, via Abbildungsverzeichnis der europäischen Kaiser- und Königsurkunden project

So there’s all that, and yet. Simon argues that this all means that Charles was not a bad king, although there were things he did wrong in retrospect; instead, he was energetic, intelligent, a canny deployer of political symbolism and patronage and a good judge of loyal subordinates. And OK, but bear in mind that I am an old hand at the which-Carolingian-is-best/worst conversation in the conference bar. My personal candidate for the latter remains Charles the Simple, and there’s no doubt about the former; indeed, it’s kind of a problem for the whole dynasty that (as Simon cannily observes) they build Charlemagne himself into a legend they themselves can never quite live up to.6 But we have to bear in mind the judgement of the times on Charles the Fat. I don’t mean the sources necessarily, but the events on which all can agree. I mean, first and foremost the man got deposed. This may not have been fair but it still happened, and even if Simon is right that it happened mostly because of a barren marriage and bad management of his chief rival plus an ill-timed illness during an unusually serious Viking assault, his nearest and until-recently-loyal still decided that they would be better off without him in charge.7

Additionally, I think even in Simon’s best presentation of the facts two other things became apparent: firstly, apart from one very early campaign against the Abodrites I don’t think we ever hear of Charles leading an army to victory.8 In fact, we get the opposite situation where when he was present even his best and otherwise successful generals found themselves on the losing end. It’s not just the Siege of Paris, though that did happen there; it’s wherever he was actually in command…9 And lastly, I haven’t done the numbers on this, but he does seem to have been ill rather a lot, even if at other times he was mobile and active to an unusual degree. So a bad general and frequently unwell, suggesting a danger of death without an heir… I’m not saying he was in fact a terrible king after all, but I can see why when push came to shove, if they’d considered his form, his counsellors would have decided the race needed a new horse. We don’t, as Simon points out, know if Charles was actually fat; we do know that he himself invoked the risky comparison to that elder Charles than whom he could only be less great; he changed the political future all right, in ways he couldn’t have foreseen; for a short while he led a great Carolingian family alliance against the Vikings and usurpers; but I think we also know that he didn’t, in the end, do very well as a king.10


1. Simon MacLean, Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the end of the Carolingian Empire, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 57 (Cambridge 2003).

2. Fernando de la Granja (transl.), “La Marca Superior en la obra de al-cUdrí” in Estudios de edad media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 8 (Zaragoza 1967), pp. 447-546 at pp. 466-467 (§24): “todo los reyes que reinan en Francia se llaman Qarlo.”

3. MacLean, Kingship and Politics, pp. 169-173.

4. Ibid., pp. 178-191.

5. Ibid., pp. 81-122, esp. 115-119.

6. Ibid., pp. 222-227. The problem only got worse after this, of course: see Matthew Gabriele, An Empire of Memory: the legend of Charlemagne, the Franks, and Jerusalem before the First Crusade (Oxford 2011), to which contrast Alessandro Barbero, Charlemagne: father of a continent, transl. Allan Cameron (Berkeley 2004).

7. The coup is covered in MacLean, Kingship and Politics, pp. 191-198.

8. Timothy Reuter (transl.), The Annals of Fulda, Ninth-Century Histories 2 (Manchester 1992), s. a. 869 (p. 60).

9. Simon performs a masterful deconstruction of the sources for the Siege of Paris (MacLean, Kingship and Politics, pp. 55-63), but even that cannot change the outcome.

10. Ibid. p. 2 & n. 3 for the byname; see n. 6 above for Charles-comparisons; and MacLean, Kingship and Politics, pp. 123-168 for the period of family leadership.

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Crusading and a Non-Deterministic Climate

The marking ebbs, and the ability to blog reappears… And for once it is clear what I should blog about, because I said I would pass over Conor Kostick‘s long-ago paper to the Digital Humanities Seminar in the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (which, as every sub-university-level academic organisation must every few years, has since changed its name), and then Dr Kostick himself cropped up in comments encouraging me not to, and so it seems rude to refuse. I admit that part of my initial reservation was that I might have to be rude, but now that I review my notes, even though the paper was called, “Digital Linguistics and Climate Change: a Revolution in the Digitisation of Sources since 2000”, which you can imagine annoying me in several ways I’m sure, I find less to be annoyed about than I remembered, but also less that one might call, well, conclusive.

Saul killing King Nahash and destroying the Ammonites, in the so-called Crusader Bible (c. 1250), New York City, NY, Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 23v

Saul killing King Nahash and destroying the Ammonites, in the so-called Crusader Bible (c. 1250), New York City, NY, Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 23v, image copyright not stated

Dr Kostick’s research at this time had arrived at the central theme of his paper from a circuitous direction. Starting with the study of the Crusades, he’d got into digital humanities as a lexicographical way of working out what medieval authors most probably meant by the words they used, which were of course changing as they used them. His example here, an interesting one, was that Archbishop William of Tyre, Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem already, may have been the first author to use the Latin word classis, classically meaning ‘fleet’, to mean ‘class’, as in first- and second-class, which are ways he divided up the nobility of Jerusalem in terms of tax liability. That wouldn’t have been clear without being able to find all the places he uses and all the places other people do and thus being sure that his is the usage that seems to begin it. This kind of technology lets us get further than the grand old lexicographers of old such as Charles Du Fresne Du Cange; as Dr Kostick put it, “we are standing on the shoulders of giants, with big binoculars”.

Charles Du Fresne Du Cange, from David d’Angers and Alfred Gudeman, Imagines philologorum (Berlin 1911), p. 19

Du Cange himself, from David d’Angers and Alfred Gudeman, Imagines philologorum (Berlin 1911), p. 19, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

From here, however, he had gone via an investigation of crusade preaching and had wound up at medieval climate data, not an obvious transition you might think, but several paths lead there. One is the kind of work that has been, let’s say examined, here before, attempting to correlate major political and social upheavals with climate events; another is the fact that at least one historian of the First Crusade, Ekkehard of Aurach, actually made the association for us, saying that the massive participation in that Crusade was at least partly down to a bad harvest, famine and ‘plague’ (perhaps ergotism, suggested Dr Kostick) in France that meant people with no other hope were willing to sign up with someone with a poorly-realised plan and take their ill-informed chances.1 The problem with many such analyses looking for other correlations, apart from the basic logical one of the difference between correlation and causation, has been poor focus of data, using, for example, tree growth in Greenland as a proxy for harvests in continental Europe, and this Dr Kostick avoided by taking as wide a range of sample evidence as possible. He started with chronicles, especially, using the same text-mining techniques as already mentioned, counting entries mentioning famine, plague and strange weather; added tree-ring data from a range of different areas (assembled by Francis Ludlow); and used ice-core data from Iceland and Denmark for finer dating. It’s a pretty good sample, as these things go, and this obviated many of the objections to such work I’d gone in with. So having done that, what do we then know? Well, the texts make it clear that both in 1095 and 1146, i. e. just before the First and Second Crusades, there were outbreaks of disease, which the tree-ring data suggests often coincided roughly with years of poor tree-growth, and the ice-core data sometimes allowed one to associate these and other such peaks with volcanic eruptions.

(I went looking for a climate data graph to put in here but the amount of short-sighted nature-blaming one quickly finds just made me angry so you’ll have to manage without an illustration between these paragraphs.2)

So case proven? Well, sometimes. It’s certainly possible, especially in the light of Ekkehard, to imagine how such a causal chain could fit together: a ‘year of no sun‘, poor crop yields, famine, destitution, desperate mobility, a convenient casus belli or particularly effective preacher, and suddenly what was meant to be a few thousand carefully-picked troops heading East, probably on the expectation of campaigning on an imperial salary for a few months, has become a horribly underplanned mass movement that winds up changing the world.3 The problem is that the chain doesn’t always work the same way. That works very well for the First Crusade, but in the Second Crusade, the popular participation was nothing like as large, though it was certainly large enough for Odo of Deuil to lament, I’ll admit; still, it was provoked by the fall of Crusader Edessa in 1144, and preparations were well underway by 1146 so I’d have thought that popular uptake is all that the bad year could have affected. Meanwhile, there was another significant peak between these two Crusades (not at 1101, at 1130 or so) which correlates with no such action, and there was no such peak before the Third or Fourth Crusades. Hey, maybe that’s why the Fourth Crusade couldn’t raise enough men, right? But the Third still presents problems.

A 15th-century image of the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, from  David Aubert, Livre traittant en brief des empereurs, II, fo. 205r

An unexpected result of a bad harvest? Probably not, eh? A 15th-century image of the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, from David Aubert, Livre traittant en brief des empereurs, II, fo. 205r, says Wikimedia Commons where this image is public-domain

Obviously, this paper was never meant to present a thesis as simple and obviously falsifiable as ‘volcanic eruptions caused the Crusades’, but without that, what do we learn from it? Our chroniclers already told us that plague and famine powered recruitment for some of the Crusades, and we didn’t need text-mining to see that. We might, now, understand better where that plague and famine had come from in these cases, but as with my earlier critique of Michael McCormick’s similar deductions about volcanoes, the problem lies in the volcanic eruptions that did not cause crusades, the famines and plagues that were not caused or strengthened by climate events, the crusades that did not correlate with bad weather or famines, and so on.4 No general rules could be extracted from this sort of causation, and neither was Dr Kostick out to present some, but without some such finding, it seemed like a very laborious way to conclude that a couple of our sources were maybe more right than we sometimes reckon. There seemed no question that Dr Kostick and his team had been more careful with data and correlations and even with causation than previous studies, but naturally enough perhaps, that had also limited what they could conclude.

That was my feeling as Dr Kostick wound up, anyway, but questions revealed other doubts and issues among the audience, many of which I thought he actually had good answers to. One of my colleagues argued that climate event references in chronicles are often wrong, to which Dr Kostick wisely observed that this was a good reason to correlate them with scientific data. Other questions focused more justly on causation: Graham Loud has in the past argued, apparently, that a famine which preceded the Third Crusade actually limited response from Germany, and here again Dr Kostick argued that while local responses to stimuli would obviously have varied, the bigger correlations still need explanation when they occur. True enough, but that seems to have been very rare… Well, I certainly don’t have better answers, and if Dr Kostick had been unwise enough to try and push his data further than it would go I imagine I’d have had bigger issues with that, but my feeling remains on this revisiting that his admirable caution robbed the paper of its potential power. The success of McCormick et al. suggest that, sadly, the route to publication of such work is not to care about such things but to push the deductive boat out well beyond sensible recovery, and maybe that’s why this one didn’t (yet?) achieve wider dissemination; it just wasn’t crazy enough!


1. F.-J. Schmale and I. Schmale-Ott (edd.), Frutolfi et Ekkehardi Chronica necnon Anonymi Chronica Imperatorum: Frutolfs und Ekkehards Chroniken und die Anonyme Kaiserchronik, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 15 (Darmstadt 1972), pp. 19-38 (commentary) & 123-309 (text), cap. 13/40, pp. 124-127, the relevant section transl. J. H. Robinson in Readings in European History Vol. I (Boston 1904), pp. 316-318, online ed. P. Halsall as “Medieval Sourcebook: Ekkehard of Aurach: On the Opening of the First Crusade”, online here.

2. I should clarify that the thing I think is stupidest in these arguments is neither that there is dispute over climate change at all, which I find explicable if dangerous, nor that there is argument over its causation, which is predictable really, but the conclusion that some people who believe climate change now is not anthropogenic reach that therefore we need do nothing about it because it’s natural. I imagine these people largely do not live in the areas most affected.

3. This interpretation of events largely rests on my old piece linked off this very blog, but is similar to that put forward in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012).

4. My target here is of course Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton and P. A. Mayewski, “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750–950”, Speculum, Vol. 84 (Cambrudge MA 2007), pp. 869–895, online here.