Category Archives: Carolingians

The intellectual impact of Charlemagne’s coinage

One of the occasional, too occasional I think, debates in numismatics is how much the people who have used coins have understood of what’s put on them by their issuers. I sometimes use this as a teaching point by fishing out a British coin and asking people if they know what’s on it and what any of it means, and although someone does occasionally get it that’s not at all usual. In fact, there is even scholarly literature about how little the British know about their own modern coinage, and I don’t suppose we’re too unusual in this respect.1 But how can we judge this for the late antique and medieval worlds? Information is pretty scant, so it’s always nice to come across a hint in our sources that someone or other noticed the design or significance of the money they were using. And in early February 2016, while I was searching for manuscripts to use in Leeds’s palaeography course, I had such a moment. Observe this!

Sankt Gallen, MS 731, fo. 56r

The opening of the Salic Law in Sankt Gallen, MS 731, fo. 56r

What is this, you ask as you are by now well trained to do, and I respond: it is a page from a big collection of lawcodes that now exists in the monastery of Sankt Gallen in what is now Switzerland, the so-called Wandalgarius manuscript. It contains three texts, the Roman Law of the Visigoths, which is basically a filtered version of the Roman Theodosian Code for use in Visigothic territories, the Salic Law that belonged to some of the Franks, and the Law of the Alemans. Each text has a number of decorated initials in it, and in particular when a line starts with omnis or its derivatives, the Latin word for ‘all’, the illustrator often did the first O as a roundel of some kind. The Salic Law, however, is not in its first version which supposedly goes back to King Clovis of circa 500, but the updated reissue of the time of Charlemagne, and in case this wasn’t clear the illustrator has found a roundel that identifies it using the signifier of Charlemagne that most people would have seen, namely, one of his silver pennies.2

Silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Toulouse between 792 and 812

Silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Toulouse between 792 and 812, image by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Admittedly, the illustrator has combined the monogram from the reverse side with the legend from the obverse, but they clearly knew that both were there. I don’t know if that makes the figure holding up the not-to-scale coin the big man himself, but since his coins didn’t (yet) feature a portrait, neither presumably would anyone looking at this have known that either. The monogram, however, meant royal authority so clearly that once Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald revived it, it didn’t fully leave the French coinage for a century or more.3 By his coins shall ye know him, it apparently seemed to our illustrator! And of course that would only work if people understood what that image was. Now, we are looking at a pretty intellectual milieu here, I grant you; wherever this manuscript was made but it’s more information than we usually get on this question in the west, so I’ll take it, and now I give it to you.4


1. I got the two weblinks in that sentence from Cécile Morrisson, “Précis de numismatique byzantine” in eadem, Georg.-D. Schaaf and Jean-Mare Spieser, Byzance et sa monnaie (IVe‒XVe siècle) : Précis de numismatique par C&eacutecile Morrisson suivi du catalogue de la collection Lampart par Georg-D. Schaaf (Paris 2015), pp. 7–104, but my notes don’t seem to record the exact page and I’m not going looking for it right now. More in-depth consideration of the issue has focused on Roman coinage, for which see for example C. H. V. Sutherland, “The Intelligibility of Roman Imperial Coin Types” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 49 (London 1959), pp. 46–55.

2. On the Salic Law, there is no easy guide, but T. M. Charles-Edwards, “Law in the Western Kingdoms between the Fifth and the Seventh Century” in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins & Michael Whitby (edd.), Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, A.D. 425–600, Cambridge Ancient History 14 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 260–287 gives you a reasonably up-to-date account of both this and its fellows. For an account of the difficulties of the attribution of each recension, see Patrick Wormald, “The Laws of the Salian Franks. Translated and with an Introduction by Kathleen Fischer Drew. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press. 1991. ix + 256 pp. £33.20 (£11.94 paperback). ISBN 0 812 21322 X (0 812 28256 6 paperback)” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 2 (Oxford 1993), pp. 77–79, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.1993.tb00011.x.

3. Charlemagne’s coinage is discussed in Simon Coupland, “Charlemagne’s Coinage: ideology and economy” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: empire and society (Manchester 2005), pp. 211–229, reprinted in Simon Coupland, Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: Studies on Power and Trade in the 9th Century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2007), chapter I.

4. I’m sure I’m not the first person to spot this, and the person I would bet has is Ildar Garipzanov, probably in Ildar H. Garipzanov, “The Image of Authority in Carolingian Coinage: the image of a ruler and Roman imperial tradition” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 8 (Oxford 1999), pp. 197–218, or idem, The Symbolic Language of Authority in the Carolingian World (c. 751-877), Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 16 (Leiden 2008), but again, alas, I cannot check this right now. Sorry Ildar!

Name in Print XX: crop yields at last

Spelt growing ready for harvest

Spelt growing ready for harvest, by böhringer friedrichOwn work, CC BY-SA 2.5

This post has been a long time coming! It’s been a while since my last announcement of work in print, but there is a bunch coming and the first piece out this year is one that has a history going a very long way back and starting, dear readers, with this blog. For in late 2007, already, after having done a lecture on the medieval economy at Kings College London for Jinty Nelson and having had the good fortune to talk it over with her a while afterwards, I first got the idea that there might be something wrong with the standard literature on the productivity of the agricultural economy of the early Middle Ages. It wasn’t my field, but something in what I’d read didn’t add up. Then in late 2009 I was reviewing a textbook of medieval history and found the same clichés again, so wondered where they’d come from, and the answer turned out to be the work of Georges Duby.1 But at about the same time I also read some exciting experimental archaeology about crop yields done at my favourite Catalan fortress site, l’Esquerda, that seemed to show that he should have been completely wrong.2 So then I went digging into the sources for Duby’s claim, and the first one turned out to have been seriously misread. And I posted about it here, had a very helpful debate with Magistra (to whom many thanks, if she’s still reading, and I owe you an offprint) and thought that’s where it would end.

British Academy logo

But then later that year I decided, for reasons I now forget—quite possibly professional desperation after my fifth year of job-hunting—that I needed to go to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, which I basically can’t do these days because of teaching. I had nothing else ready and thought that maybe this idea deserved a better outing, and because I was on a small wage back then I put in for a Foreign Travel Grant from the British Academy, a thing they still did then, and got it, which paid for most of my plane fare and made the whole thing possible (wherefore their logo above). And I gave that paper in May 2011, had a splendid time and got some good advice from the Medieval History Geek (to whom I also now owe an offprint I think) and began to wonder if this should actually get written up.

The Bodleian Library viewed from the south entrance

The Bodleian Library viewed from the south entrance, by OzeyeOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The trouble with that was firstly, that I was by now very busy because I had a teaching job, and secondly, that the source I’d already rubbished Duby’s treatment of wasn’t the only one he had used, and the others were largely Italian, plus which there was a decent amount of up-to-date French work I hadn’t used about the first one. I seemed to have Jean-Pierre Devroey’s L’économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque vol. I (did vol. II ever emerge?) on reserve in the Bodleian Library for a very long time, and I’m not sure I actually started on the Italian material till I got to Birmingham in late 2013; it was just never my first priority.3 By then, however, I’d shown an early draft to Chris Wickham, who knows that kind of thing (and is definitely also owed an offprint) and he’d come up with several other things I ought to think about and read, and the result was that this was one of the articles I agreed to complete for my probation when I arrived at Leeds, by now late 2015. How the time did rush past! Now, the story of my probation can probably some day be told but today is not that day; suffice to say that finally, finally, and with significant help just in being comprehensible from Rebecca Darley, to whom even more thanks and an offprint already in her possession, the article went in with all sources dealt with, to the venerable and honourable Agricultural History Review. And, although their reviewers (whose identity is still a mystery to me) had some useful but laborious suggestions for modification (which needed a day in the Institute of Historical Research reading Yoshiki Morimoto and a day in the British Library reading I forget whom, also no longer easy4, it was finally accepted. And that was in October 2018, and now it is in print.5

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated" in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

In case you would like to know what it says, here is at least the abstract:

Despite numerous studies that stand against it, there remains a textbook consensus that agriculture in the early Middle Ages was unusually low in productive capacity compared to the Roman and high medieval periods. The persistence of this view of early medieval agriculture can in part be explained by the requirement of a progress narrative in medieval economic history for a before to its after, but is also attributable to the ongoing effect of the 1960s work of Georges Duby. Duby’s view rested on repeated incorrect or inadequate readings of his source materials, however, which this article deconstructs. Better figures for early medieval crop yields are available which remove any evidential basis for a belief that early medieval agriculture was poorer in yield than that of later eras. The cliché of low early medieval yields must therefore be abandoned and a different basis for later economic development be sought.

Not small claims, you may say, and this is true. If I’m right—and of course I think I am—this may be the most important thing I’ve ever written, and though I hope I will beat it I’m not yet sure how. So how do you read the rest? Well, in two years it will be online for free, gods bless the Society, but in the meantime, it can be got through Ingenta Connect as a PDF if you have subscription access, and I guess it’s possible just to buy the journal as a thing made of paper if you so desire! These are mostly your options, because I seem to have given out or promised most of my offprints already…

Offprint of Jonathan Jarrett, "Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated" in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

Here’s one now!

So statistics, we always like the statistics here, yes, this has had a really long gestation but that’s not the press’s fault, that’s all me and my employment. There were six drafts in all, seven if you count the blog post: Kalamazoo, a 2016 version incorporating the Italian material, a 2017 one adding in what Chris Wickham suggested, and a 2018 one I finished under probational shadow, almost immediately revised into another thanks to Rebecca. Then the last one dealt with the journal comments in December 2018, and from there to print has been more or less six months, which is really not bad at all and involved one of the best copy-editors I’ve so far worked with in such circumstances. It’s certainly much better than my average. But the same is also true of the article, I think, and so I hope you want to know about it, because I certainly want you to! And so, now you do…


1. Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz and Richard Gerberding, Medieval Worlds: an introduction to European history, 300-1492 (Boston 2004), pp. 162 & 223, with Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974), in the bibliography, and of which pp. 26-29 carry the relevant material.

2. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona and María Ocaña i Subirana, “From the Granary to the Field; Archaeobotany and Experimental Archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York City 2007), pp. 85–92, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0.

3. Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque : VIe – IXe siècles, 2 vols (Paris: Belin, 2003), I, though Jean-Pierre Devroey and Anne Nissen, “Early Middle Ages, 500‒1000” in Erik Thoen, Tim Soens, Laurent Herment, Michael Kopsidis, Per Grau Møller, Jankh Myrdal, Alexandra Saebznik and Yves Segers (edd.), Struggling with the Environment: Land Use and Productivity, Rural Economy and Society in North-Western Europe, 500‒2000, 4 (Turnhout 2015), pp. 11–68, DOI: 10.1484/M.RES-EB.5.108034, now gets you a lot of the same stuff shorter, in English and updated.

4. Yoshiki Morimoto, Études sur l’économie rurale du haut Moyen Âge : historiographie, régime domanial, polyptyques carolingiens, Bibliothèque du Moyen Âge 25 (Bruxelles 2008) is his collected papers, and very useful if you can locate a copy.

5. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28!

OK, I admit, this is not a temple

I often hark back to much older posts on this blog, which I suppose is part of having been blogging for more than a decade. Still, you would have to have a special kind of memory to remember my theory about the so-called ‘tomb type’ deniers of ninth- or tenth-century Barcelona, which is just as well as I think I now have to admit that it was wrong.1 So, I probably ought to explain a bit, and then show you why it’s wrong and wonder what’s right now.

So, when the Frankish kings took over in what’s now Catalonia, they set up mints in four towns, Girona, Barcelona, Castelló d’Empúries and either Roda de Ter, Roda d’Isàvena or Roses, with the balance of likelihood for now on the third.2 These mints struck the regular Carolingian coinage of silver pennies, which Simon Coupland has called the ‘medieval Euro’, which under the rule of Charlemagne (768-814, here 785-814) and his son Louis the Pious (814-840) was standardised pretty much across their empire.3 The principal design of that is the so-called ‘Temple’ type, which you see here.

'Temple' type denier of Emperor Louis the Pious

‘Temple’ type denier of Emperor Louis the Pious, uncertain mint, 822-840. Image by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The reverse design is fundamentally Roman, the closest resemblance being to a coinage of Emperor Antoninus Pius, but as befitted their new dispensation the Carolingians converted the once-pagan temple into a Christian space by adding the cross at the centre and the legend, PXISTIANA RELIGIO, with the first two letters being Greek, the chi-ro monogram meaning Christ, so, ‘Christian religion’. Visually, it’s fairly clearly a design in three registers, the pediment, the pillars and cross, and the fundament. This type continued to be struck in the West under Louis the Pious’s son Charles the Bald (844-77), but at a decreasing standard until in 864, at the Council of Pîtres, Charles ordered a reform and brought the coinage back up, more or less, to the standard of his grandfather, whose KAROLVS monogram he also reinstated on the coins.4

'Temple'-type denier of King Charles the Bald, struck at Reims 840-864

‘Temple’-type denier of King Charles the Bald, struck at Reims 840-864. Image by By Numisanticahttp://www.numisantica.com/, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, somehow or other the Catalan mints don’t seem to have got that memo. There’s no specimen of a post-Pîtres coin so far known from any of them—although as this post shows, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one waiting to be found—and it seems therefore that coinage in Catalonia either ceased to be made for a while or they carried on making the previous issue. I favour the former, simply because Charles stayed in fairly close touch with his distant province in his later years, but it’s possible an exception was made.5 The real difficulties for numismatists however start after Charles’s death, because while we have one or two not very good temple-type coins in his name from Barcelona, we don’t have any clearly in the names of his successors. What we have instead is a set of three types of coin, all rather below even pre-Pîtres standard in size and weight, all lettered in more or less junk characters, As, Vs, lozenges and triangles, and all with a small cross in a circle on one face. They’re distinguished by the other face, which carries either another such small cross in a circle, a triangle of three annulets in a circle, or a blocky design in three registers which we know as the ‘tomb’ type, and which has been guessed to represent the then-recently-discovered tomb of Saint Eulalie of Barcelona. Here is a typical example of such a coin.

Silver transitional denier struck at Barcelona in 865-1018, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.345-2001

Silver transitional denier struck at Barcelona in 865-1018, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.345-2001, image by your humble author

As you can see, that’s not a lot to go on. You may remember me being sceptical here about our ability to date the supposed rediscovery of Eulalie’s tomb, and of course we can’t independently date the coins except by hypothetical seriation, so neither one thing can be used to date the other, though people still do of course. The three known coins of Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell (992-1018) use the triple annulet device, so it seems likely—no more—that the anonymous ones with the annulets come before his. Eulalie’s tomb was supposedly found by Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona, who was around in the 870s, so we usually put the ‘tomb’ type first, and the cross type has to fill the gap. Braver souls than I have even assigned each type to a known ruler, Bishop Teuderic of Barcelona for the ‘tomb’ type, Count-Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona (911-947) for the cross and my own favourite, his son Borrell II (945-993), for the annulets.6 That could certainly be, but equally, we don’t know from what we have that they weren’t all issued simultaneously in a fifteen-year splurge under Count Guifré I the Hairy (870-898) and then just used till they wore nearly blank, and then a century later Ramon Borrell decided to revive his great-grandfather’s coinage, on a current standard, as a sign that he was taking up the fight against the Muslims anew. That could just as easily have happened from this evidence.

Anyway, whenever it dates from, this post is about the ‘tomb’ type. It is very rare to have a clear, unworn specimen of any of these coins, and all the ones I’ve seen hitherto of the tomb type have left me quite dubious about its iconography. It’s often no more than three raised rectangles, the uppermost slightly domed, and the repetition of the triple register has made me wonder before now whether it’s not in fact just a rather degraded recollection of the temple type that the revelant mint, wherever it is (we usually assume Barcelona, but again don’t actually know), had probably once struck. And, as I now know, that’s where I’m wrong, because in April of 2014 (and why, yes, I have had this post stubbed for a while), there passed through the sale-rooms of Aureo & Calicó in Barcelona this example:

Silver denier struck in Barcelona, probably in the late ninth or early tenth century. Aureo y Calicó, Ramon Muntaner sale, April 2014, lot 211

Silver denier struck in Barcelona, probably in the late ninth or early tenth century. Aureo y Calicó, Ramon Muntaner sale, April 2014, lot 211

Now, they attribute it to Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona, but you know from the above how much that’s worth. It probably is very early in the possible timeframe, at least, because its weight is high (1.36 g), the obverse legend is still legible as +CARLVS REX rather than being pseudo-literate and the cross is longer than on the later ones. The reverse legend is pretty clearly +BARCINONA, Barcelona, too, even though whoever engraved the legend on the die didn’t realise it needed to be in mirror-image and so it has come out, as the numismatists say, retrograde. That implies that they were copying a Carolingian-era denier, however. So perhaps this is the earliest tomb-type denier we have so far, and in that respect maybe it could be Frodoí or Teuderic (or Guifré the Hairy or his son Guifré II Borrell). Mainly, though, it’s really clear, even though someone apparently put a knife point right through its middle at some point in its history. The device on the reverse does have three registers, though the top one is subdivided vertically into two or three. But they plainly aren’t the temple. I’m not saying I know what it is. It could be Eulalie’s sarcophagus, but I’ve seen that myself and it’s not an obvious resemblance to me, plus which I don’t see how anyone who hadn’t seen it could possibly be expected to recognise it.

Crypt of Saint Eulalie in cathedral of Santes Creu i Eulàlia de Barcelona

Seen but not photographed, alas. The thing you’re looking for is not the raised-up Gothic box in the middle but the rougher-cut one lurking between the pillars and behind the railings at the back, almost invisible from any available angle of approach. Image by Bernard Gagnonown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

But it’s not the temple. The omission of the vertical elements when the horizontal ones are so clear is impossible to explain. So, I have to retire that theory and another one is needed. But this is the fun thing about medieval coinage, and I suppose material culture more widely except that coins were produced on such a scale; our understanding can genuinely be transformed by one new find. I would love to know where this coin came from, which I probably never will. Its pedigree is likely to be dubious, but that it got to a sale-room and they photographed it gives us more than we would have known otherwise. In this case, what we now know is that my idea doesn’t work, but that’s OK; now, whatever idea we come up with will have to work better than that. This is how scholarship progresses, and I have plenty of other progress to make, I hope.


1. Not least, I think I actually first expressed the theory in print, in my “Currency Change in Pre-Millennial Catalonia: Coinage, Counts and Economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217–243, online here, at p. 220, though I was then less dubious about Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona’s rôle than I am now (and below).

2. See Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013), pp. 70-73.

3. See Simon Coupland, “The Medieval Euro” in History Today Vol. 54 no. 6 (June 2002), pp. 18–19, or in a bit more depth Coupland, “Money and Coinage under Louis the Pious” in Francia Vol. 17 (Sigmaringen 1990), pp. 23-54, online here, repr. in his Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: Studies on Power and Trade in the 9th Century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2007), chapter III.

4. See Philip Grierson, “The Gratia Dei Rex Coinage of Charles the Bald” in Margaret T. Gibson and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom, 2nd edn. (Aldershot: Variorum, 1990), pp. 52–64.

5. He issued all of Ramon de Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 75, facsimile reprint (Barcelona 2007), Arles IV, Banyoles III & IV, Particulars XXVI, XXVII & XXVIII, Sant Andreu d’Eixalada I, Sant Julià del Munt I, Sant Llorenç del Munt I & Sureda III & app. VII & VIII to recipients in the area of modern Catalonia after the date of P&icrc;tres.

6. Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “La moneda barcelonina del segle X. Altres novetats comtals” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 38 (Barcelona 2008), pp. 91–121, modified by Crusafont, Balaguer & Grierson, Medieval European Coinage 6, pp. 74-76.

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.

Praying in tongues in a famine year

Well, I had promised that the next post would be a report on an age-old seminar paper by Dr Conor Kostick. However, I figured that by now he must have published it, so I checked that, and in fact it seems that he has not. In that case, it seems a little unfair to have a go at it when apparently it didn’t go any further anyway, so I’ve decided to drop that and instead haul something out of my unfinished stub posts from about the same time with which to entertain you. So this comes from the early stages of the first run of my Carolingians module at Leeds, HIST2005 Rule and Reform under Charlemagne and his Successors, 768–987. This was the first time I’d taught the Carolingians for more than a week, and so it got me reading a lot of things I honestly should have read ages ago but somehow had not, and one of these was the Capitulary of Frankfurt.1 In the middle of that, I suddenly came upon a question I couldn’t answer, and I still can’t, so I put it before you all.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 10758, fo. 25r

Opening page of the earliest manuscript copy of the Capitulary of Frankfurt, from the ninth-century Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 10758, fo. 25r, image via Gallica

For those of you not quite as deep as some of us in Charlemagne’s world, firstly a capitulary is a species of law-code issued as items under headings or capitula, quite a vague category, and secondly that of Frankfurt was quite a big deal. It followed on two years of bad harvests and a minor rebellion, and it seems that these events all had the leading men of Charlemagne’s massive kingdom worrying about whether God had withdrawn his favour from the hitherto-successful Franks and what should be done about that. There was also a fairly large-scale three-way theological argument going on with the Byzantine Empire and the Papacy and it was deemed necessary to depose the erstwhile Duke of Bavaria, a ruler nearly as prestigious as Charlemagne himself.2 As a result, the council left very little untouched, and the measures range from what might seem to us very practical ones, such as opening state stockpiles of produce for famine relief and fixing maximum prices to try and stop hoarders exploiting shortage to sell high, through high diplomacy and politics to spiritual ones about tightening Church discipline. These do make sense together in that framework of winning back God’s support, of course, but it means that one jumps quite quickly from information vital to numismatists like what you should be able to buy for a denarius, through the stitched-up denunciation of Duke Tassilo to orders to close down fake roadside shrines that people may have set up (perhaps people like Aldebert of a few years before, for readers with long memories) and indeed fake bishops.3 It’s a rare scholar now who would focus on all this equally.4 And on this particular read-through, there was one bit that struck me especially, which goes like this:5

“That no-one is to believe that God may be prayed to in three tongues only; for God may be worshipped and a man’s prayer heard, if he ask for things which are just, in any language.”

I don’t know about you—and sadly, I don’t think it sparked anything for my students—but for me, at least, This Raises Questions. Firstly, why had this come up? Was someone trying to tell their flocks that they couldn’t pray in the vernacular but had to learn something else? Should we see this as connected with the false shrines and so on, was this more bad churchmen peddling a strange line that needed stopping?

A niche on the roadside of la Vinya de Vallfogona

A niche on the roadside of la Vinya de Vallfogona, which would probably not have been cool in 794. Photo by your author.

Then, I wondered if in fact it’s not more like clerical magic that’s being prohibited here: this was apparently about getting stuff one asked for, in which case it might be thought more like a spell or an incantation than a prayer as such, and we might not be surprised that people thought it was a special language. Still, if it really were that, I think the Church would probably have been as down on it as they were on most magical practice (most…), whereas it seems in fact that all this is cool, as long as one asks for “things which are just”. So, maybe not. So, what?

Well, I can’t answer that, but it’s all washed away by the biggest question of all for this particular Carolingians geek, which is of course: what languages? This is in some ways like our old question about the so-called ‘Third King of Spain’; it may be more important to ask about the first and second… Now, Heaven only knows how many languages were spoken in the Carolingian kingdom at this (or any other) point: Latin, obviously, because here’s a text in it, maybe some Greek, Frankish (Einhard tells us so, quite apart from any other evidence), rather a lot of late Latin/early Romance forms presumably (as would soon afterwards turn up in the Oaths of Strasbourg), and then Frisian, Breton, Old Saxon, Old High German, some forms of Slavonic, probably Arabic in places, Hebrew, Old English and Old Irish in certain monastic communities…6 More than three, anyway, so which were the three that were being allowed? Evidently it was restrictive, so I would tend to assume that they were not vernacular, or at least mostly not so. Latin, Greek and Hebrew, the languages of the Bible? Latin, Frankish and Romance, the three most widely spoken, but still difficult if you were Breton or Croat? The different possibilities have quite different implications about who was being shut out of worship by some clerics somewhere: the rustics, or the irredeemably local? Was this about suppressing regional identities or about confining the practice of Christianity to an educated elite? Or something else? Either way, we note that Charlemagne and his advisors didn’t like it. But who did, and what were they trying to do, eh?


1. Text to be found in Alfred Boretius (ed.), Capitularia Regum Francorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges: Capitularia) I-II (Hannover: Hahn 1883-1887), I, no. 28 (pp. 73-78), translated in P. D. King (transl.), Charlemagne: Translated Sources (Kendal 1987), pp. 224-230.

2. For background see Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 768–987 (London 1987), p. 59; for more on the theological dispute see now Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia, PA, 2009) and for Bavaria, Stuart Airlie, “Narratives of Triumph and Rituals of Submission: Charlemagne’s Mastering of Bavaria” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 93–119, on JSTOR.

3. See n. 1 for references. These are clauses 4 (King p. 225), 3 (King pp. 224-225), 42 (King p. 229) & 22 (King p. 227).

4. Though most of them come up in the course of Rosamond McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (Cambridge 2008). Separate studies are most obviously combined in Rainer Berndt (ed.), Das Frankfurter Konzil von 794: Kristallisationspunkt karolingischer Kultur, Quellen und Abhandlungen zur mittelrheinischen Kirchengeschichte 80 (Mainz 1997).

5. King, Charlemagne, p. 229 (cap. 52).

6. I admit to not having gone and checked them for this, but my two stock references for language in the Carolingian world are Roger Wright, Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France (Liverpool 1982) and Michel Banniard, Viva voce: Communication écrite et communication orale du 4e au 9e siècle en Occident latin, Études augustiniennes: Moyen Âge et temps modernes 25 (Paris 1992). I suppose I should get a new one now. Any suggestions?

Chronicle II: October to December 2015

Somewhat to my surprise, I have now reached the second of the what-was-going-in-my-life round-ups I was promising to use as the anchor of the new blogging programme here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, back in, er, February. It wasn’t supposed to take eight months to record what had happened in three, but as you’ll have observed there was a fair bit of hiatus and strife in there, and I hope that we can pick things up a bit now. There’s only one way to find out, anyway, and thus we now reach the point where I try and give some impression of my first semester employed at the University of Leeds. The first thing that needs to be said about that is that my new colleagues were absolutely lovely, and guided me through new offices and routines with cheerful generosity; it all unrolled a great deal more easily than it could so easily have done while I found my feet. To try and explain what I was actually up to, however, probably needs breaking down into headings, and the obvious ones would be teaching, what we might generally class as extra labours, seminars and similar, research work and, lastly, life more widely; I’ll say the least about the last, but it holds the rest together. So here we go. Continue reading

An awful lot of numismatists in Sicily, I

The progress of this blog continues surreal. I returned from India yesterday, and am nearly three years overdue in writing the next post, about going to Sicily. Nothing loath, here goes, in an attempt to write maybe my shortest ever conference review about one of the largest conferences I ever went to, the Fifteenth International Numismatic Congress, which was held in Taormina, already mentioned, from the 21st to the 25th September 2015. It is too large for one post, in fact, and there is a very obvious break-point in the middle, so this will be part I of II.

Logo of the XVth International Numismatic Congress

Logo of the XVth INC

I travelled to the INC in a sort of party of people one way or another connected to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts and its coin collection, which I’d still been in charge of when I signed up. We arrived the night before, I think, bussed in from Taormina’s delightfully, er, unreformed airport, past those Byzantine graves already mentioned, and stayed in a tiny but charming hostel room for the duration. The papers were split across four different venues in the town, all splendid and close by each other; it was easier and quicker getting between sessions here than at Kalamazoo, for example, than whose campus the whole town might even be smaller, but one had to resist buying tat (or just coffee) between each one in a very definite way. Proceedings began the next morning with a series of welcoming addresses, but I’ve no memory of those and no notes on them, and one was by someone I know, so I think that for one reason or another I didn’t get going until later. The best way to record what I did go to seems to be to list the papers for each day, then make remarks, but that still winds up fairly long. So I shall put it behind a cut, but encourage you to look even if only for the pictures, which are not what you’d expect from the average academic conference. Continue reading