As so often, I have to beg your forgiveness for a gap in posting. Family has become a much larger part of my life this year than usual, is probably the shortest way to put it, and they keep getting my weekends. However, I do have something ready now, so here goes. Every now and then I am spurred to write a post here by something I’ve read, in which I think I have a new historical insight that, nonetheless, I don’t think I could get a publication out of, either because it’s too minor or because I could never get up to speed in the relevant subfield in time. That latter kind of thought is obviously vulnerable to me subsequently finding out that, if I had been up to speed, I’d have known someone had already had the idea; we’ve seen this happen here, and this time it has happened again but thankfully, during the draft stage so that I can still write it up coherently. On this occasion, the subject is a tenth-century king who too often gets forgotten about, Hugh of Italy, and it turns out I may still have something to add.
Hugh of Italy is not much known now. He began his career as son of the Count of Arles, in southern France, at the time when the Carolingian Empire was running into its final breakdown, and he wound up closely associated with one of the last and most troubled Carolingians, Louis the Blind, son of the usurper King Boso of Provence but nonetheless himself becoming King of Provence after his father in 887, King of Italy in 900 and Emperor in 901. Louis was kicked out of Italy in a coup there in 905, which is when he earned his unfortunate byname, and retired to Provence where Hugh now became his chief advisor and started an on-and-off war with King Rudolph II of Burgundy. Rudolph also got involved in Italy, in the end deposing and removing Emperor Berengar, who had chased out Louis the Blind, and Berengar’s supporters therefore asked Hugh to step in, so in 925 he became King of Italy like his boss had been; in 928, when Louis died, Hugh simply annexed Provence to Italy and ruled them both, and he lasted in this position, more or less, till 945, when he in his turn got kicked out of Italy by another man named Berengar. Still King of Provence, Hugh died not very long after this, in 947.1
Despite the tangled way in which it all arose, in the terms of the time Hugh was a success as King of Italy. His rule really only encompassed the north of the peninsula, and he could not control Rome despite a tactical marriage there (largely because the relevant wife, the infamous Marozia, had a son by her first husband, Alberic I lord of Rome, himself an interesting figure, and that son, Alberic II, did not intend to let the city out of his grip despite his mother’s new interest). But on the other hand, Hugh fought and won (mostly) against the Hungarian raiding armies that plagued the era and the Muslim raiders who had set up in the wildest part of Provence at la Garde-Freinet; he managed that latter with Byzantine naval help, and in the end indeed a daughter of his married into the Byzantine imperial family and finished up briefly as empress.2 I put some of this together for my article that touched on la Garde-Freinet and thought then that it seemed weird that someone so internationally successful should be such a small part of our historiography.3 Admittedly, he has the problem that he belongs to no current nation very clearly, so no-one wants him to be proud of; but still. He held a series of tricky situations together for decades with what was clearly considerable personal force and ability. So why is his reputation so scant?
Well, when I was then writing it seemed obvious to me that the answer was Liudprand of Cremona. Everyone’s favourite gossipy tenth-century Italian chronicler, you see, owed Hugh a living, having first been employed at his court. As a result of this, he is usually considered to be one of Hugh’s fans, but I have never thought this to be so. Liudprand undermines Hugh by mocking his wives’ conniving manipulation of him, which I knew already from scholarship, but looking at la Garde-Freinet I realised that he also collapses time so that Hugh’s victory over the Muslims there is immediately made irrelevant by his concession of the frontier passes of the Alps to them to keep him safe from Berengar of Ivrea, which actually only happened later.4 Whether Liudprand owed him his start or not, therefore, Hugh was apparently safe to lampoon from where Liudprand eventually got, and what success of his comes through Liudprand’s account is, I think, simply because it was too well-known to be ignored; he had to go all Chaucer’s Knight on it instead.5 So I thought that we should probably try looking past Liudprand to see the real power that Hugh apparently wielded. And then I read something else which notes that at the Italian monastery of Farfa, a namesake but unrelated Abbot Hugh at the end of the tenth century remembered King Hugh as a force for the good in the monastery’s history, helping it recover its property by installing and supporting an effective abbot like the author. That’s a politicised record itself, obviously, but one in which Hugh featured as one of the good kings, not the bad ones who had helped Farfa lose the property in the first place.6 So I decided there was something to write here.
Now, as it turns out, better scholars of Italy than me had already spotted this, and in particular none other than Ross Balzaretti had already published an article in 2016 that I’d completely missed, saying that it’s not just Liudprand, but all Liudprand’s contacts, who participate in this running down of Hugh’s reputation.7 Ross thinks that this was not just to amuse King Otto I of the Germans, for whom by this time most of these people worked and who in one case had installed their boss, but because of Hugh’s pretty free-wheeling attitude to marriage and legitimacy of offspring. The Wikipedia entry I found when I first drafted this post in February 2020 was and still is revealing here: it lists eight children, only two of whom were legitimate, both by his second of four wives. Hugh probably wasn’t the model reform monarch, therefore, whatever Farfa thought of him, and he had also removed one of our important primary authors, Bishop Rather of Verona, from office for a while.8 So there were axes grinding for him. Liudprand, who seems to have been highly amused by all sexual misconduct, probably didn’t think better of anyone for it either, but mainly I think he just found Hugh laughable in safe retrospect; Liudprand wasn’t a very nice man.9 Anyway, Ross does all this better than I just have, including the setting of Hugh’s career in context, so you can read him if you need the details. But there is just one thing he doesn’t cover, and there I can help because it’s about the Iberian Peninsula and indeed also about la Garde-Freinet.
Y’see, it wasn’t just the Byzantines who paid attention to Hugh, but also the first Umayyad Caliph in Spain, ‘Abd al-Rahmān III al-Nāsir. Various European rulers seem to have assumed that he was in some way or another in charge of the Muslim raiders at la Garde-Freinet, whom even Muslim sources say had come from al-Andalus, and embassies were probably sent to him about this.10 The most famous of these was led by Abbot John of Gorze, who spent several years in Córdoba while everyone tried to stop him getting himself martyred by denouncing the Prophet Muhammad before the Caliph.11 It’s not really clear that he was sent to negotiate about the raiders, rather than in fact to denounce Islam, but priorities seem to have changed as when he sent for instructions after a couple of years, that was one of the things that came back: “accomplish peace and friendship about the infestation of Saracen bandits”.12 The source that tells us this, a biography of John written after his death, unfortunately doesn’t survive complete, so we don’t know if that was achieved once he and the caliph made friends, but we may suspect not. Why? Because the Muslim chronicler Ibn Hayyān, writing in the later eleventh century but with apparent access to Cordoban court records, recorded a different embassy from a different king that raised the same question, as a result of which instructions were sent to the qādi (more or less, director) at ‘Farahsinit’, pretty clearly Fraxinetum, the Latin for la Garde-Freinet, telling him to lay off the relevant king’s territory. And who was the relevant king? Why, Hugh of Italy of course.13
So at the end of this we have, for the first half of the tenth century, one man whose diplomatic web reached effectively from end to end of the Mediterranean, making rulers he’d never met do what he wanted for no very clear reason, making up for his own weakness by his ability to mobilise or demobilise the forces of others, and generally surviving at the precarious pinnacle of Italian and wider Meridional politics for twenty years and getting in the end to die in his bed, quite possibly with someone the Church thought he shouldn’t have been with. There are ways in which such a person could be considered the most important man in Europe just then, and I imagine Hugh did so see himself (which may be why Liudprand liked to take him down so much). If I ever write the book I’d like to about the tenth century, Hugh will have to get a decent bit of it. It makes you wonder what other people like this have got written out or down because their achievements didn’t turn into countries or monasteries…
1. In English there really isn’t much about tenth-century Italy, as I’ve mentioned before, but I recently re-read Guiseppe Sergi, “The Kingdom of Italy” in Timothy Reuter (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume III: c. 900–c. 1024 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 346–371, and it’s better than I remembered and definitely enough to start with. I haven’t yet read Chris Wickham, Medieval Rome: stability and crisis of a city, 900-1150 (Oxford 2015), but you’d imagine it would help.
2. Here you’d definitely want Wickham, Medieval Rome, by the look of it pp. 20-28 & 204-212, but for la Garde-Freinet best of all is Kees Versteegh, “The Arab Presence in France and Switzerland in the 10th Century” in Arabica Vol. 37 (Leiden 1990), pp 359–388, and for the Byzantine marriage you’re best to go to the source, which is Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. R. J. H. Jenkins, Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae 1, 2nd ed. (Washington DC 1967), cap. 26.
3. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101, pp. 212-214.
4. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona: Antapodosis; Liber de Rebus Gestis Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana, transl. F. A. Wright (London 1930), online here, Antapodosis V.xvi-xvii, and see also V.xix. On interpreting Liudprand, an ever-live concern, see for example Jon N. Sutherland, Liudprand of Cremona, Bishop, Diplomat, Historian: Studies of the Man and His Age (Spoleto 1988), and, maybe best of all till recently, Karl Leyser, “Ends and Means in Liudprand of Cremona” in James Howard-Johnston (ed.), Byzantium and the West, c. 850‒c. 1200, Byzantinische Forschungen 13 (Amsterdam 1988), pp. 119–143, reprinted in Leyser, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe: The Carolingian and Ottonian Centuries, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), pp. 125–142.
5. For those that don’t know, I refer here to a book by the late lamented member of Monty Python, Terry Jones, Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, 4th edn (London 2017), originally published in 1980, in which he argued that the apparently-heroic and chivalric knight in the Canterbury Tales was actually being placed by Chaucer at every notorious defeat or disgrace in European warfare of the fourteenth century possible for one man to attend, as a send-up of the ideal of chivalry the knight purported to represent. This was widely embraced by literature scholars at the time, and widely rejected by scholars of medieval warfare as being a stretched reading of almost all the evidence, or so I have been told. Jones seems to have relished the fight and made his argument more specific with each edition. Still, I have been told this at school, thirty years ago, in the specific context of a history teacher telling us our English teacher was teaching us rubbish, and so it’s possible I don’t fairly reflect the current state of the discussion…
6. Jean-Marie Sansterre, “« Destructio » et « diminutio » d’une grande abbaye royale : la perception et la mémoire des crises à Farfa aux Xe et dans les premières décennies du XIe siècle” in François Bougard, Laurent Feller and Régine Le Jan (edd.), Les élites au haut moyen âge : crises et renouvellements, Haut Moyen Âge 1 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 469–485 at p. 475.
7. Ross Balzaretti, “Narratives of success and narratives of failure: representations of the career of King Hugh of Italy (c.885–948)” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 24 (Oxford 2016), pp. 185–208, DOI: 10.1111/emed.12140, on Academia.edu here.
8. Balzaretti, “Narratives”, pp. 190-197; on Rather of Verona see also Irene van Renswoude, “The sincerity of fiction: Rather and the quest for self-knowledge” in Richard Corradini, Matthew Gillis, Rosamond McKitterick and Irene van Renswoude (edd.), Ego Trouble: Authors and Their Identities in The Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 15 (Wien 2010), pp. 227–242, on Academia.edu here.
9. See here not least Ross Balzaretti, “Liutprand of Cremona’s Sense of Humour” in Guy Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 114–127, but also Philippe Buc, “Italian Hussies and German Matrons: Liutprand of Cremona on Dynastic Legitimacy” in Frühmittelalterliche Studien Vol. 29 (Sigmaringen 1995), pp. 207–225, or Antoni Grabowski, “From Castration to Misogyny: The Meaning of Liudprand of Cremona’s Humour” in Acta Poloniae Historica Vol. 112 (Warszawa 2015), pp. 243–268.
10. Argued most straightforwardly by Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 108-110, on the supposed basis of Liudprand, Antapodosis, I.i-iii; but Liudprand never actually describes the embassy which his correspondent, Recemund by then Bishop of Elvira, was returning, there or elsewhere.
11. Christys, Christians in al-Andalus, pp. 109-113; for the Life, or the significant bit of it, in English (and indeed in Latin) see Colin Smith (ed./transl.), Christians and Moors in Spain, volume 1: 711 – 1150 (Warminster 1988), no. 14.
12. Frustratingly, Smith ellipses this bit out of his translation (ibid. cap. 130). I actually did my own translation before finding Smith’s, however, which is what I’m here quoting, and if you want the Latin you can find it in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), “Vita Iohannis Abbatis Gorziensis auctore Iohanne Abbate S. Arnulfi” in Pertz & Georg Waitz (edd.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica… Scriptorum Tomus IV (Hannover 1841), online here, pp. 335‒377, where it is also cap. 130.
13. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates?”, p. 214, based on Versteegh, “Arab Presence”, p. 363 & n. 15. He cites Ibn Ḥayyān, al-Muqtabis, ed. Pedro Chalmeta, Federico Corriente & M. Subh (Madrid 1979), p. 308.