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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7 responses to “Maybe not Fat but still not Great

  1. Surely we can’t judge him unless we know his policy on Climate Change?

  2. I am still reading the thesis of Simon Maclean: “The reign of Charles III the Fat (876-888)”, but to me it’s one of the most refreshing works on this subject (even after substracting the natural empathy effect of the researcher versus the object researched). So I would say: Maybe not Fat but still not Great… Yet Magnus! :)

  3. We could use some more titles like that. King Louis the Lard Bucket. King Peter the Plump. King William the Well Upholstered. Charles the Chubby, Boris Broad of Beam, Paul the Portly.

  4. The potential to bore the socks off anyone listening to this argument is substantial so I’ll try to keep things brief, but I do have to step in to defend Charles’ deposition being a sign that he wasn’t up to his job. Arnulf of Carinthia appears to have martialled a small group of regional conspirators, to have done so because of concerns about his throne-worthiness specific to his own clique, and to have had little luck gaining much support from elsewhere – his first, oh, six months or so as king saw him sitting on his behind in Bavaria consolidating his core power-base. The other kings of the 888 succession crisis don’t appear (possible exception: Berengar I) to have made their move until after Charles’ death. Odo of Paris in particular only had his first, somewhat improvised, coronation in February 888, a month after Charles’ death. The implication to me is that everyone was waiting for Charles’ comeback, knew he was ill enough that it might not happen but was loyal enough not to desert him immediately, and only when he died did it become absolutely clear that wouldn’t happen. That Charles was ill even unto death is bad luck, but it’s not bad rulership.

    • I do take the point about Charles’s possible recover and the delay before action, but I’m not sure that saying that Arnulf’s coup was not very impressive makes its removal of Charles any less damning for Charles, are you? Why was Charles in a position to be the victim of a ‘small group of regional conspirators’? Where were the attempts by loyalists to restore him? Where, even, were the refusals to recognise Arnulf (I’m not sure Ramnulf of Aquitaine counts here). As deposed Carolingians go, Charles the Fat is getting at best second place behind Louis the Pious (but ahead of Charles the Simple).

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