Carrying Things to War in Frankish Gaul

Pausing briefly with the photography, let’s drop back in on my more academic self in the latter part of 2018. One might observe that I seem to have spent much of the summer of 2018 abroad, and certainly, I don’t seem to have stubbed many blog posts, which itself suggests that I was not reading very much. An inspection of my Zotero library suggests that actually, what I was mainly doing was clearing up references for the final push on what became my ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’, but still, the trail goes faint in June, July and August and I suspect that I was mainly marking or prepping for next year’s teaching.1 I had also picked up again after a long time away – about twenty years in fact – Martin Aurell’s Les Noces du comte, which was to become its own whole big thing that more may be written of at some point, but at this point I was only restarting that. Two things I definitely did read that summer, however, for quite unrelated projects, were Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera and, quite unlike it in every detail except sharing the English language and a paperback format (and, of course, being excellent), Guy Halsall’s Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West.2 And on getting properly into the latter, I stubbed this post mainly to express surprise and delight at two incidental things I found there.

Cover of Guy Halsall's Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003)

Cover of Guy Halsall’s Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003)

In the template, issued by Charlemagne King of the Franks and his counsellors probably around 793 or 794, for how royal estates should manage their economy and renders, the text we call the Capitulare de Villis, there is so much interesting detail that one can’t take it all in at once.3 I had most recently gone to it looking for what happened to agricultural produce, and so had managed to skip straight over some of the regulations for military provisioning. But of course Guy was looking for the latter, and so he points out quite justly, firstly, that Charlemagne wanted people to send carts to the army from all over the place, which has one contemplating trails of carts wending their way across the various kingdoms towards wherever the muster was each year.4 But, later on, there are further specifications about these carts, namely, that they had not just to be waterproof but be able to float, so that if a river had to be crossed, none of their cargo (which should, for reference, be up to twelve modia of grain) would get wet. Also, each one was to be equipped with a shield, a lance, a javelin and a bow, which as Guy observes is equipment for at least one and maybe two defenders.5 At which rate, these swimmable, hide-covered battle carts stop sounding quite so much like produce wagons and just that bit more like ox-drawn armoured personnel carriers… It had me thinking of some of the odder-looking walker machines in the Star Wars prequel movies, and that storming a Carolingian baggage train might have been a prickly experience, as, presumably, was intended in these laws. Circle the wagons!

LEGO Star Wars AT-TE walker

This is the kind of thing I had in mind, although obviously made of wood rather than LEGO, with wheels rather than legs, oxen and men rather than mini-figs and weapons other than laser cannons, but come on, share my vision can’t you? Also, I should probably say at this point that I am not getting any money from Amazon for using their images like this, I just think they’re least likely to complain about the free advertising…

Now, I might not have noticed the waterproof castles on wheels that Charlemagne apparently wanted everyone to make, but I did at least register that people were supposed to send carts when I had previously read that text; it did not fall upon me as a complete surprise. Not so much the second thing, dealing with a much earlier episode in a civil war around Comminges. There, the would-be king Gundovald had taken refuge from the pursuing forces of his enthroned rival, and alleged brother, Guntram, and Bishop Gregory of Tours, whose Ten Books of Histories tell us all this, writes from the point of view of the pursuers here:

“In their search for Gundovald they came upon camels and horses, still carrying huge loads of gold and silver, which his men had abandoned along the roads because the animals were exhausted.”

I don’t know about you, but the word that really struck me there was camels. I don’t think of camels as being normal beasts of burden around the Garonne area, even in the sixth century. But Gregory gives no further attention to it and rolls onward with the story (which, at the risk of spoilers, ends badly for Gundovald).6

Now, of course I was not the first person to notice this. I found out a month or two later that Bernard Bachrach notes it in his, er, classic, work Merovingian Military Organisation, but he does nothing with it at all.7 Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, no less, studying diplomacy of three centuries later in which some camels were sent to Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald, emphasises the foreign, eastern resonance they would then have had, indicating Charles’s connections to the mysterious world of the caliphs.8 But does this leave us to suppose that, while a camel was an exotic rarity in the Francia of the ninth century, in the sixth the average king just had troops of them in his baggage train and they were an everyday animal for the time and place? I mean, come back Pirenne if so, right? But I think there might be another explanation.9

Detail of camel in wall-painting in a bedroom of the Château de Chillon

An actual medieval French camel picture, or very nearly, from the Château de Chillon in Switzerland

The question to ask is, where had this apparently-much-mocked apparently-pretender Gundovald got these vast quantities of precious metal to abandon anyway? And the answer may be in the next chapter of Gregory’s Histories, where in a set-piece of very useful exposition Gregory has Gundovald answer the taunts of his besiegers with a worked-out explanation of his claim to the throne. In the course of this he explains that, after he was driven out the second time (because yes, his career had been unsuccessful for a while), he’d run off to Constantinople and it was there that Guntram Boso (a duke, not a king, no relation to King Guntram, and the real target of Gregory’s rhetoric here) had sought him out to say, more or less, “all the other claimants are dead, come back and get what’s yours”. And Gundovald had then returned, under a safe-conduct which he now, not unreasonably, felt had been broken.10 But to my mind, when the Roman Emperor sends you west to try for your brother’s throne, especially when your brother’s kingdom is one the Romans were fighting in the Alps only twenty years before and which still threatens imperial possessions, he probably sends you with some gear. The Byzantine strategy of paying people to start civil wars with their enemies rather than risk their own forces was not new at this point, and would get much older, but it makes perfect sense here.11 In short, I suspect that much of Gundovald’s pay-chest and, therefore, quite possibly the baggage train that carried it, had come from Constantinople, which at this point still had control of almost all the lands which Caliph Muhammad would in 865. Emperor Justin II, in short, could have laid his hands on some camels (as it were). He could likewise then have sent them west laden with bullion or coin with which, with a bit of luck, this enterprising young Frank would embroil the Frankish kingdom in civil war for a good few years and leave the empire free to handle the increasingly bad situation in the Balkans. Sam is probably right that sending camels had a special valence, even in 585, but it would not then have been connection to the world of Islam, since that had not yet been created, but to the distant, but also quite close-by, Empire in whose erstwhile territory this was all being fought out. Gregory makes Gundovald look ridiculous, and perhaps he was, but by marching with camels and showering people with solidi he was probably supposed to look a good deal more serious and better connected than the Frankish bishop’s character assassination has let him be remembered.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople in 565-85 CE, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1131

Perhaps the more powerful tool in Gundovald’s armoury, a gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople in 565-585 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1131

All the same, Gregory apparently did not think his audience would need it explained what a camel was (though to be fair, neither did the annalist in 865). This is not like the single elephant sent to Charlemagne that Sam has also studied, or the occasional lions sent westwards or northwards in diplomacy, which occasioned wonder from most writers dealing with them; a camel was a known thing in this world.12 (And after all, what do we suppose happened to the camels of Gundovald’s baggage train? I doubt they got eaten; too useful! Perhaps there were generations of subsequent Garonne camels. I’m just waiting for the zooarchaeologists to find one now, it’d look ever so global…) We might, as with some other phenomena this blog has looked at, once again need that word we don’t have which means something that was conceptually normal but hardly ever happened. Such a thing, I suggest, was the sixth-century camel in Francia. It’s not by any means all I learnt from Guy’s book; but for the rest, you’ll have to wait for the article…


1. Of course I never miss a chance to reference my own work, and this time it’s Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

2. Referring to, in sequence, Martin Aurell, Les noces du comte : mariage et pouvoir en Catalogne (785-1213), Histoire ancienne et médiévale 32 (Paris 1995); Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / la Frontera: the new Mestiza, 4th ed. (San Francisco 2012); and Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbaian West, 450-900 (London 2003).

3. It’s translated and explained at the link given, but if you need a critical edition (and indeed a facsimile , whose odd shape governs that of the whole book), then it’s Carl-Richard Bruhl (ed.), Capitulare de villis: cod. guelf. 254 Helmst. der Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Dokumente zur deutschen Geschichte in Faksimiles, Reihe 1: Mittelalter 1 (Stuttgart 1971), and for scholarship see recently Darryl Campbell, “The Capitulare de Villis, the Brevium exempla, and the Carolingian court at Aachen” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 243–264.

4. Halsall, Warfare and Society, pp. 149-150 n. 97 citing Capitulare de villis cap. 30, where indeed you can see it yourself.

5. Ibid. but now looking at cap. 64, which is here.

6. Here quoting Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974), VII.35, though Guy of course cites the Latin (at Warfare and Society, p. 151 n. 111), which you can see here; the relevant Latin word is camellos, which seems hard to misinterpret.

7. Bernard S. Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751 (Minneapolis MI 1972), p. 58.

8. Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Camels of Charles the Bald” in Medieval Encounters Vol. 25 (Vienna 2019), pp. 263–292.

9. I cannot find that I have references to what I’m about to suggest anywhere, so I may have thought of it. However, something scratches in my brain when I try that idea, some sense that I have heard or seen parts of this before, and if I have, it may have been either (perhaps most likely) from talking to Sam Ottewill-Soulsby; possibly, from reading Bernard S. Bachrach, “Animals and Warfare in Early Medieval Europe” in Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter XVII, which I have done but where my notes don’t go into this kind of detail; or, longest shot, from a Kalamazoo paper of really long ago, Benjamin Wheaton, “Reasons for Byzantine Support of Gundovald through 584 C. E.”, 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 14th May 2011, which I would tell you otherwise I remembered nothing of but which must have covered this material. If what I go on to say has been accidentally ripped off from any of these, or indeed someone else, I apologise…

10. Gregory, History, VII.36.

11. On the general practice, see Evangelos Chrysos, “Byzantine Diplomacy, A.D. 300–800: means and ends” in Jonathan Shepard & Simon Franklin (edd.), Byzantine Diplomacy: papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 23–39, but for the specific context here, even though it doesn’t mention camels, still really good is Walter Goffart, “Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians” in American Historical Review Vol. 86 (Washington DC 1981), pp. 275–306, on JSTOR here.

12. On East-West diplomatic gifts of this period, you must expect me naturally to cite Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World” (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, Cambridge, 2017), or his marginally more accessible idem, “Carolingian Diplomacy”, in Gordon Martel (ed.), Encyclopedia of Diplomacy (Oxford 2018), DOI: 10.1002/9781118885154.dipl0042, so now I have.

37 responses to “Carrying Things to War in Frankish Gaul

  1. Fascinating post. Maybe there is something to the Pirenne thesis after all – at least as concerns even-toed ungulates. But I really do think that between these sixth and early seventh century Merovingian camels (Brunhilda is also mentioned as riding on a camel and being pelted at with mud before her execution in 613 in the Fredegar Chronicle), which are seen as not too out of the ordinary beasts of burden, and the ninth century Carolingian camels of Charles the Bald studied by Sam, which are clearly seen as exotic luxuries that symbolise friendship with distant rulers, something much deeper underneath really has changed. Pirenne’s exact arguments may have been wrong, but I think in the basic thrust of things he was right – that something seismic really did happen in the seventh century, or perhaps more broadly across the period from the death of Justinian to the rise of Iconoclasm (beginning of final third of the sixth century to end of first third of the eighth), that really was epoch defining, in that it marked a real transition away from the Roman world to early medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. I’m not saying that everything changed in the seventh century – some very important stuff happened in the fifth century, and some would have to wait until much later (the feudal revolution ain’t dead yet). But at the same time there’s a fundamental difference between the Mediterranean world in the early sixth century and that of the mid-eighth, the former still feeling like a somewhat post-imperial Roman lake and the latter feeling much more fractured in various different ways. I guess camels are a good way of putting flesh on the bones for it.

    • You should have first credit for the mention of Brunhilda’s unfortunate camel experience, Joseph, for though Sam has also mentioned it he couldn’t see your post till I’d cleared it from moderation. I want to apologise to you, as I have had to to various other valued commentators, that there is no whitelist in WordPress, so I can’t tell it to let your address through… Anyway, the late great Mark Whittow would have agreed with you here, and of course it seems unlikely when you stop and take a look at it that a full half of the Mediterranean coastline changing political ownership in opposition to a good half of the other half made no difference at all in the Mediterranean world. Where the argument is to be had is about what the difference was, and what changes were caused by that large-scale event as opposed to any of the other available large-scale events. Pirenne can be right that something changed: but to observe that is not to validate him over what, when or why…

      • No worries about the whole post approval thing and thanks for giving me credit for the Brunhilda example.

        I definitely would agree that Pirenne wasn’t right over when, what and why. But he was right to put his finger on the seventh century as the time of great change, even if he was wrong to attribute it all to the rise of Islam, and to not see that many of the changes he described had longer roots (its now well-established that economic and urban decline goes back to the third and fourth centuries, albeit gradually). And of course he also exaggerated the changes the seventh century brought – Mediterranean trade didn’t completely end (though I’m not buying the McCormick thesis that the Mediterranean slave trade fuelled the Carolingian economy) and in the North Sea area we’re seeing a revival of trade, money and, some would argue, a new kind of urbanism with the wics and emporiae.

        But still, I feel like that the seventh century, or more broadly the period 565 – 733, is such a watershed in the geopolitics and culture of the Mediterranean world. Its basically here that the dream of making the Mediterranean a Roman lake once again dies – political, economic, cultural and religious integration becomes impossible due to many factors, Islam being only one. And we can see that reflected in the context of the camels. At the time of the Gundovald affair, the Eastern Roman Empire is still. actively interfering in the affairs of the Merovingian kingdoms, which are still sort of satellite states (the coinage for one is demonstrative) even if somewhat uneasy neighbours with them in Provence and the Italian Alps. Meanwhile, in the time of Charles Martel, this is evidently not the case, and the Mediterranean is a truly multipolar world in ways it simply wasn’t in the sixth century (I guess this is as much Peter Brown as it is Pirenne). Or indeed, one can think of it over a somewhat extended time span in terms of the difference between the situation in the time of Theodoric and Clovis (the Germanic Western Roman emperors who could have been) and Charlemagne (the Germanic Western Roman emperor who was) 300 years later. However, we look at it, something very seismic happened in the sixth to eighth century Mediterranean that made the dream of a unified unipolar Roman world returning to the Mediterranean impossible, and cloven hoofed ungulates aren’t too bad a metric for it.

        • I can buy that for argumentative purposes. It wasn’t necessarily the conclusion I expected to reach from anecdotes about camels, but Mark Whittow would have been delighted by this whole discussion and I really really wish he could have seen it. The shift from unipolar to multipolar may, indeed, be the phenomenon most truly under observation here. I observe elsewhere (it’s out, I just don’t have a physical copy to base a post on yet) that changes in coinage don’t prove Pirenne because it’s obvious that polities running different currencies doesn’t preclude exchange between them (as Francia and the English kingdoms melting each other’s coin down at point of arrival show, let alone sterling and Euros now); but perhaps camels do!

          • I always get the impression that Mark Whittow would have been a delight to have been taught by/ work with. Indeed, I remember Matthew Kempshall saying to me a few years ago, back when I was applying for my masters, that if Mark Whittow were still alive he have been the perfect supervisor for me.

            • The simplest way to agree with that is to for me to remember how full Christ Church was for Mark’s funeral. I don’t think many more could have been accommodated. Hundreds of people turned out for him and many tears were shed. But yes, given your interests, he could have been very good for guidance on both detail and wider context. The way that Oxbridge teaches allows for that kind of breadth which one can’t really develop elsewhere (though I try my best to maintain it, having developed some of it while in the system).

  2. That makes sense (just follow the money/camel…). Or in a broader context, Gregory also wrote about camels in the time of S. Aphrodisius. Maybe they were not so extraordinary then as it may seem now. After all, transmediterranean commerce predates christian era.

    • Thankyou, Joan. It does seem that for Gregory, it was not weird for someone to have a camel to carry their stuff. Maybe Bernard Bachrach should also have used this as evidence of the continuity of Roman military organisation, the Merovingian camel corps…

      • Nice joke, Aphrodisius does indeed carried weird stuff…! :)
        I will not comment on Bachrach, but maybe size was a real concern then (In search of the “great horse”. A zooarchaeological assessment of horses from England (AD 300-1650)…?

        • Aha! We have a student here at Leeds working on horses, and one of the things she wisely observes about that article is that its calculations are based on averages. While they may not have been common, they do nonetheless have evidence for some fairly large horses in their dataset. But I will cheerfully concede that they were probably not as large as the average camel, or as waterproof!

      • The Bachrach joke about the “Merovingian camel corps” had me cracking up inside – that’s pure gold. I can literally imagine Bernard

        Seriously, now we’re on the subject of Bernard Bachrach, he’s a historian I always have really mixed views on. On the one hand, he’s clearly a really intelligent and serious historian who knows all written sources on warfare in the early medieval West really intimately and has read very widely in the scholarly literatures in English French and German. He’s done an immeasurable amount of work to get early medieval military history taken seriously, his very readable monographs (like Merovingian Military Organisation) are still invaluable to the field after almost fifty years and he’s done us all a big favour in translating lots of medieval sources (some as father-son team with Bachrach Jr).

        At the same time, I find his hyper-Romanism goes way too far. Like I’ll happily argue for Roman continuity in the early medieval West up to a point, and I’m not a fan of Germanist or minimalist interpretations of early medieval polities either. But Bachrach just pushes it too far to the point that he outright denies certain stuff that’s actually well established i.e. dismissing all the archaeological evidence for economic and urban decline in the third to seventh century West, and claiming its all the work of Marxist primitivists (Bryan Ward-Perkins definitely isn’t one, nor would that label apply accurately to Guy Halsall and the dozens of other late antique and early medieval archaeologists who’ve come to similar conclusions). And while he knows the written sources impeccably well, at the same time they really don’t always say what he wants them to say. And often he plays a very similar game to Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier – saying that a word that appears on a Carolingian or eleventh century document has the same meaning as it does in the late Roman sources, therefore proving continuity for phenomenon x or y. And while I’m swayed by his arguments that Vegetius was more than just an antiquarian work in the Middle Ages, I find his use of West Point/ Pentagon vocabulary for early medieval warfare just a wee bit anachronistic if I’m honest.

        • I am pretty much in total agreement with that. Bachrach senior is a historian who can do really excellent source-critical work, and sometimes has done that, sometimes really hasn’t, and sometimes, as you say, fixes his whole theory on the meaning of a single word or phrase that must remain changeless over centuries (like, cool—not!) and then defends it like the West Point hawks hope their trainees would in the face of all reason. When reading his oldest Variorum volume a while back I was as frequently surprised by the excellence of some of that old stuff as I was by the egregiously doctrinaire reading of some of the sources. A future post will address some of this. As for Bachrach junior, he and I already have a history of civil disagreement in this very forum so I’ll just wait for you to turn up in comments on those posts :-)

          • Yeah. I saw the disagreement you had with him about the size of Ottonian and Anglo-Saxon armies. That’s a debate that in all honesty I prefer not to get into because people on both the maximalist and minimalist side tend to get very entrenched in their positions and not really budge in the face of any contrary evidence. I take Guy Halsall’s position that most early medieval armies assembled for campaigns were in the low thousands, with a few perhaps being as large as 20,000 but seldom ever much larger than that. Like him, leaving the whole problem of the sources to one side, I just don’t buy Bachrach Senior and Bachrach Jr’s argument for armies of 40,000 or more on campaign being normal in the early medieval west when the field armies of ancient Rome, medieval Rome (Byzantium) or late medieval England only rarely matched, let alone surpassed that figure. And those states undeniably had stronger socioeconomic and administrative bases than any west European kingdom of the sixth to tenth centuries, ones much better suited to raising and supporting armies in the tens of thousands, unless of course you’re living in BachrachWorld TM (as Halsall would put it).

            • I think for me, though it is very much a sign that I follow Chris Wickham in such things, the difference is tax. It seems clear that al-Andalus could, at its height, field armies that dwarfed all the capacity of all their Iberian enemies, and that continued until thetaifa era. Moreover, it could maintain most of them as salaried troops on a standing-army basis. So could Byzantium with its armies, whereas the Carolingians and Ottonians, however much Roman continuity they may or may not have enjoyed, still called up their troops annually. And as I say, the difference is tax: the Umayyads and Byzantines had the revenues of general taxation to dispose of, the Carolingians and Ottonians as far as we can tell did not, though they had a lot of revenue and renders with which to supply the armies they could raise. Thus, even if the numbers of troops on individual campaigns might sometimes have approached parity, the two situations still really aren’t the same, and it’s the former which is the Roman one, and the latter ineluctably sub-Roman in capacity. That’s what I think that whole debate misses, which is fundamentally because it’s a debate being conducted within the post-Roman West, rather than on the bigger canvas of the post-Roman world.

              • Very good point r.e. taxation. Of course we have general taxation again in the later middle ages – for late medieval England the fifteenth and tenth, the staple on wool, forced loans from parliament, the lay subsidy of 1334, experiments with an income tax in the reign of Henry VI. As a result of this, armies of 20,000 or more become more easy to achieve, as were also more permanent ones – after 1419, the English crown essentially had a national standing army in Lancastrian Normandy,

                But as the Bachrachs (and Walter Goffart, having abandoned the much more nuanced and sophisticated position he took back in 1972) would contend, following Jean Durliat and Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, Roman taxation carried on without a break into the ninth century, and perhaps for a century or two after that. This they would use to support their contention that the Carolingians did indeed have very large armies, The problem for them there is that such a view rests on an extremely tenuous reading of the sources – one that, as I described before, basically rests on interpreting certain words that crop up in Carolingian polyptychs or eleventh century charters from the Anjou (possesores, codoma, iugum etc) having the same meanings and associations that they do in the Theodosian Code or other late Roman sources. Indeed, following Chris and all the other historians without a hyper-Romanist axe to grind, we can say that any argument for late Roman taxation surviving anywhere in the post-imperial West beyond the first third of the seventh century is quite simply empirically wrong.

                • Ha! I have seen the answer to that last sentence raised at Chris, by Eduardo Manzano Moreno, and it is “al-Andalus”. The later medieval point is well made, though, and I don’t mean to dismiss your second point either. However, if anywhere in the West still was taxing by the eighth century, it may have been the Visigothic kingdom; they were the last post-Roman state to strike gold coin and they were still doing it in 711, and if we buy Hendy on this (which I do) the reason you do that is for tax, because without tax you apparently can’t afford to do it anyway. Now as to what that tax looked like, that is a whole bigger debate (and in Castilian), but…

                  • You got me there! I’ve fallen into the trap that most non-Hispanist early medievalists do of overlooking Spain – Chris Wickham (as you mentioned), Paul Fouracre and Guy Halsall (who admits that Cispyrenean history is not his comfort zone and that he needs to do more work on it), who argue along the same lines as I do for the general trajectory of the post-Roman west, are all probably guilty of underestimating what the Visigothic state was capable of.

                    And I think I’m broadly convinced by the argument that the survival of the gold coinage in Visigothic Spain means that they were taxing – by contrast, in the Merovingian kingdoms, once taxation completely stops after 640, the gold coinage begins to fail. I guess the question then is, what were the Visigoths taxing for? Political patronage, as Guy Halsall suggests was the purpose of taxation under the early Merovingians? Or maybe, the Visigoths did use taxation to finance permanent military forces, in which case perhaps Bernard Bachrach missed a trick?

                    • Well, that is the question I should have expected, isn’t it? But I didn’t have an answer ready for it. There was for a while a tendency among some Spanish scholars to see the Visigothic gold coinage as a ‘hoarding coinage’, which only magnates really used as a store of wealth. The problem with that was always that wealth is no use unless you can spend it, so the only point to having such hoards would surely be to disburse them into the market, at which point the coins are currency not treasure and circulate at small scale. (Though, it must be said, the same questions about what’s a hoard for arise about the dozens and dozens of dirham hoards from Gotland, and I’m now so behind with that really interesting literature that I don’t feel I can safely offer an answer.) Nonetheless, even a late Visigothic tremissis presumably still had quite a lot of buying power; they’re not shopping coins (and we now begin to accept that at least some Visigothic cities did have shopping-value coinages). That doesn’t preclude their market use, as Mark Blackburn once wisely pointed out to me; it just means that they’re the coins of the traders, not the consumers (as with modern-day markets settling up slates at the end of the day with rolls of twenty-pound notes). But still, I’ve never really bought why a big pile of coins would have worked as tools of aristocratic distinction, compared to finely-worked treasures and the like which had individual charisma. If everyone at court has a huge pile of tremisses (which they had probably had to collect themselves just to get some of them back, since we seem now to agree that tax collection in Visigothic Spain was farmed out to the local powerful), then how did that make anyone special? I grant that the tenth-century Byzantine emperors managed to do quite a lot of hierarchical positioning by handing out differently-sized bags of coins to their clients, and maybe the Visigoths also had some equivalent of the rhoga going on… But what else they could have been spending on, I’m not sure. Work on Visigothic military service has probably moved on since Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, but I haven’t found where yet, and he thought it was mainly aristocratic contingents raised on a Carolingian manner but with more private power and less state office for the aristocrats. Hendy thought that the tax was raised from the Romans and used to pay the Goths, which (he did not go on to say) would necessarily involve the Goths then spending the money in ways that meant the Romans could acquire it, but also can’t have lasted beyond the abolition of those legal categories in the sixth century. So maybe there really was a small salaried Visigothic army (or rather, since I buy Hendy that revenue was not accumulated centrally) a set of small salaried aristocratic armies, and yes, Bachrach would then have missed his best supporting case…

                      I used always to resist the idea that because I was an early medieval Hispanist I must be interested in the Visigothic period, on which I’d never really worked and whose voluminous legal sources (alongside the absence of most other sorts of source) are not anything I’m really trained to deal with. But it seems like coinage, as so often, is bringing me round to think about them more and more. Thanks for the prompt!

  3. samottewillsoulsby

    I love this and totally buy Gundovald’s camels as part of his Byzantine backing, and being striking because they were unusual and a physical statement of the support he was getting from Constantinople. There are hints that camels were less rare in the Merovingian period than they were later. In the seventh century Bishop Eligius of Noyon apparently had a pack-camel (Vita Eligii, p.702 in the MGH). Chlothar II paraded Queen Brunhilda on a camel in 613 before her execution (perhaps a descendant of Gundovald’s?)

    Alain Dierkens has done a lot of the legwork on the archaeology here in his excellent “Chameaux et dromadaires en Gaule mérovingienne: quelques remarques critiques,” Hommages à Carl Deroux. V. Christianisme et Moyen Age, Néo-latin et Survivance de la Latinité, ed. Pol Defosse (Brussels: Latomus, 2003), 114‒137; and “Chameaux et dromadaires dans la Gaule du très haut Moyen Âge: note complémentaire,” La Méditerranée et le monde mérovingien: témoins archéologiques, ed. Xavier Delestre, Patrick Périn and Michel Kazanski (Aix-en-Provence: Association Provence Archéologie, 2005), 241‒245.

    • Hullo Sam, I thought this would tempt you out… I have to say, I didn’t expect quite so many cites for sixth- and seventh-century camels to eventuate from this post. There are enough that, though I love my theory, pinning them to Gundovald starts to look a little restricting. Can there have been only one camel import? Maybe when Maurice sent another of the Frankish kings (Theudebert II?) some big gold medallions they also came on camel-back… Or maybe there had been Roman camel-troops somewhere in Gaul whose studs carried on for a bit, in which case the Byzantine angle starts to look weaker. But now I sound like a Bachrach…

  4. What sort of terrain would camels like to walk on? Would Roman Roads be too hard on their feet? Could they be induced to ford rivers?

    • I am no expert in the inducement of camels, but I bet there’s a British memoir of some kind. This one seems too desert-based, but diligent searching might find more…

    • Allan McKinley

      I’d assume camels can ford rivers, as they aren’t afraid of water (animal-mad five-year-olds are great for making you learn new things…): a Google search for ‘camels in water’ shows lots of images of them swimming, some with packs on their back.

  5. Allan McKinley

    The lack of zooarchaeology aside, is there any reason not to think camels might be found in southern Gaul in the post-Roman period? They are useful pack animals, especially in rough and arid terrain where the utility of horses (and even more so the fodder hungry oxen) drops. This is even more the case when you consider that early-medieval horses did not reach the size of modern animals, so were smaller than camels. The other alternative pack animal, the mule, is also small and possibly even more difficult to handle than a camel, plus will not form self-sustaining herds. So there’s a clear case for camels being useful in the right environment.

    There’s recent evidence for this as well. The best known example is the introduction of camels to Australia, but note the US also decided camels were useful, primarily for military logistics in its own south-west, creating an actual Camel Corps for this purpose, although this experiment failed due to a minor civil war, the Confederacy actually capturing the camels at one point (this failure meaning there’s no westerns where the cavalry rides to the rescue/genocide by charging on camels, which is unfortunate).

    Southern Gaul was tough enough and often arid enough that camels might make sense as a pack animal introduced in the Roman period. Although we might need to explain what happened to them in the eighth century if the Carolingians were unfamiliar with them (although as a stray thought, if the Carolingians had familiarity with the Arabian/North African dromedaries, a much-hairier, two-humped Bactrian Camel might still be worthy of comment, and these were available in the Islamic world of the ninth century).

    • I did find a memoir of a camel that went to the USA in that very movement you describe, in fact, while searching for an answer to dearieme, but I couldn’t work out whether or not it was fictionalised so didn’t link it. No, I make no objection to the utility of camels, not least as here is Gregory inter alia telling us people used them; it’s just the continuing availability of camels that seems to change. As to your point about dromedary versus Bactrian, it’s potentially a good one, but leaves us dealing with a shift of meaning of camellus that ought itself to speak of change… Sam will probably know more here (or will simply tell us all to go and read Dierkens).

  6. From a spirited friend of mine, at a tasting of Australian wines:

    Salesman: “Do you know the wines of Seaview, madam?”

    My friend: “I last visited Seaview by camel.”

    And it was true.

  7. If camels were solely associated with Constantinople, I’m not sure that would have been of assistance to Gundovald on a “hearts and minds” level. Perhaps he felt able to use them because they were not specific to Constantinople?

    • I think that really depends on a thing we don’t know enough about, the attitudes of the south-west of Gaul to the Empire. If the numismatists are right that Provence was running a pseudo-imperial coinage and ruling through patricians right up to the time of Heraclius, maybe turning up there with camels was a right move when it would not have been in other places?

      • Allan McKinley

        But Gundovald was making a play for Merovingian kingship not the rule of Provence. Success would have required a share of power in northern Gaul surely?

        • I take your point, but if the camels got him a bridgehead in Provence, perhaps the second stage of the campaign didn’t need to involve them. Gundovald may have been aiming to be all things to all men, Cæsar-style… Hypothesis of course, but still. Also, if his aim was only to share in Merovingian kingship, rather than take it all over—i. e. to claim that he had been wrongly left out of the normal division of the kingdoms—and his backing made Provence a possibility for him, perhaps his play was only for Provence, and to demonstrate that he could hold it when Guntram could not, and so should be accepted as king there alongside his putative kinsman. Obviously Gregory is not a great source for this level of insight, but as he represents Gundovald the problem was that Gundovald wanted parity and recognition whereas Guntram wanted sole control and Gundovald never really seems to have realised what he was up against, and that may have been because Gundovald’s expectations were of the old normal not the new one…

  8. Parenthically, this reminds me of when I stumbled across this camel in a trecento chapel on the Brenner Pass. Apparently it is all that remains of the castle of a Raubritter (or was put up after they destroyed the whole castle including the chapel then decided that was not a good idea) https://www.bookandsword.com/2016/05/21/how-many-ancient-military-historians-are-there-at-canadian-universities/ By the late middle ages, contact between Italy and eastern Iberia and the eastern Mediterranean was ubiqutous again.

    • That must be much of an age (and indeed of a style) with the one not far away in Chillon which was used in this post, indeed. I wonder if they were back in fashion by then, or just a known feature of the world…

  9. Pingback: A Further Bit of Istanbul | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  10. Pingback: Slavs and East Franks Love It So: Aribo’s Letter to King Arnulf (891) – The Historian's Sketchpad

  11. Pingback: Louis the Pious and the Cynocephalus – The Historian's Sketchpad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.