Tag Archives: Alcuin

Anglo-Saxon England and the European Union

It is a time of weighty decisions in this part of the world right now. I don’t just mean in the Academy, although today and tomorrow much of the UK one is on strike because of pay that has not kept pace with inflation for some years and personally I am in the middle of quite a lot of marking, some of which will affect people’s fates in ways I can’t foresee but can still worry about. No, I mean that on June 23rd the UK will be turning out to express its opinion about whether it should be in the European Union any longer, even on the rather specialised terms we currently enjoy. As with every political issue these days this has become a matter of men in suits insulting each other and making up random stuff to frighten their electorates, and in some cases other people’s electorates: the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of Canada have both weighed in effectively to threaten Britain, apparently not realising how much of the ‘Leave’ campaign is being driven exactly by a resentment at other countries seemingly intervening in Britain’s decisions. Perhaps they’re actually trying to make sure the ‘Leave’ vote wins. In any case, it all has me wondering what perspective a historian can take on it all. Sheffield’s excellent History Matters blog has a Brexit category but so far only one post under it, and I feel as if more can be said.

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

It seems to me that this is one of the rare episodes where the most relevant parallels are from the early Middle Ages, because there is really only one point prior to the twentieth century when Europe could be considered a single political entity and, importantly, its ruler had not declared an intent to add the British Isles to that (as in the times of Carausius, Napoleon or the guy with the moustache and the painting qualification). That time is the period of the Carolingian Empire, albeit with some pre-echoes under the Carolingians’ Merovingian predecessors, and actually there are some thought-provoking parallels. There’s nothing really new in what follows except its application to now, but I still think that’s worth doing.1

A silver penny of King Offa

Obverse of a silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, struck in London by Ethelwald around 785

For a start, we can look at English-European relations in a time of breakdown here and see what happened. In around 796 Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards and Patrician of the Romans, had a letter sent to King Offa of Mercia.2 At this point in time Offa was pretty much number one king in England; not only did his Midland kingdom stretch from the Welsh border and the Hwicce (around Gloucestershire) to Lindsey (modern Lincolnshire) but he also held control over Essex, East Anglia (just about), the south-eastern Home Counties and the city of London and had marriage alliances with both King Beorhtric of Wessex and King Æthelred of Northumbria.3 This put him in charge of quite a chunk of the Channel coast and its ports, and whether either side liked it or not that put him in contact with Charlemagne.

A Mayen quernstone

A Mayen quernstone, of the sort that Charlemagne probably refers to in his letter to Offa

In that letter Charlemagne was responding to one of Offa’s that we no longer have, and had a number of queries to answer. The letter is thus very revealing about the kind of things that kings dealt with in this era: the free movement of pilgrims from England through Francia, and how to distinguish them from merchants who disguised themselves as pilgrims to escape paying toll; the proper treatment of merchants who admitted as much, and should be protected by the Frankish king according to an old agreement; a renegade priest whom Offa feared had come to Charlemagne to spread accusations about Offa at the Frankish court, but whom Charlemagne had sent on to the pope at Rome; and black quernstones which had until recently been imported into England and which would now be again, as long as Offa would make sure that those exporting English wool cloaks to Francia made them at the old, full length rather than a new shorter one that the Franks didn’t like.4 Charlemagne also sent ceremonial clothing to both Offa and Æthelred with which their churchmen could hold memorial services for the recently-deceased Pope Hadrian I, whose death had, we know, grieved Charlemagne deeply.5

Charlemagne's epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, on display in San Pietro di Roma

More black stone, Charlemagne’s epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, still on display in San Pietro di Roma

A lot of this doesn’t seem too far from the modern day, suggesting that some issues keep coming up: we have a kind of Schengen Agreement for certain kinds of travellers, but not those with goods to declare; a certain sort of acceptance of responsibility for foreign nationals; some controversy over appeals to the European court system (here manifest as the king and the pope, but still); and fine-detailed specifications of goods with which, just like the fabled EU regulations on the curvature of certain vegetables, one is surprised and even dismayed to see the European world’s top legislators wasting their time when warfare, migrants and agricultural crisis all needed dealing with.6 We know from other letters that Offa and Charlemagne had at one point been sufficiently at odds for Charlemagne actually to close the Frankish Channel ports to traders from Offa’s territories, which will hopefully remain unparalleled whatever happens but reminds us that access is not guaranteed, and Offa was also persistently bothered about Charlemagne playing host to powerful exiles from England, either from Kent or from Northumbria (where King Æthelred would be killed later in 796, making Charlemagne extremely cross with the Northumbrians).7 Offa himself would die later that year, indeed, which reminds us that the people who make such treaties tend not to last as long as the consequences, but if you remember the furore about Julian Assange taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London you can probably understand that people being protected from vengeance by foreign powers is not a phenomenon that’s stopped nowadays.

Map of England in the time of Offa's rule, c. 795

Map of England in the time of Offa’s rule, c. 795; I think we could argue about Sussex, but it gives you the idea…

There are also plenty of things that damage the comparison, of course. One of the other things that Offa and Charlemagne seem to have argued about was a possible marriage pact between their children, in which the problem was which side got the other’s daughter for their son.8 The UK still has its royalty, of course, but if one of them married into a European royal line (if they could find one with whom they aren’t already consanguineous) it would no longer make a massive difference to the UK’s relations with Europe. That should serve to remind us that whatever the things the early medieval situation shares with the current one, democracy was not one of them; not only would Offa and Charlemagne both have been bewildered by the concept of a referendum, but once you’d explained it they would have thought it subversive and dangerous, and maybe even illegal, and there the modern parallel is really elsewhere in Europe. There’s also important differences in the scale of trade revenue involved, which for our kings might have been significant but was still only a tiny part of their kingdoms’ economy.9 And finally, of course, among many other objections that could be raised, the England of Offa was a patchwork of uncomfortably allied rival kingdoms of varying size and strength, all of whom could negotiate with the Franks separately as our letters show, and so is almost more like the European Union of now in structure than like the unified, monarchic and hardly-devolved kingdom of Charlemagne, despite the rough territorial match.

So does the parallel I’ve set up actually tell us anything about the current situation? I think that it does, at least, bring some particular aspects of the situation out that are perhaps not as obvious as they should be. The first of these has already been mentioned, that whatever the outcome is on June 23rd it’s hard to believe the arrangement it sets up will last for long before being modified; all the people who made it will be out of power before very long, and the new lot will have a choice about how much continuity they want. The UK has tinkered with its relationship to Europe every few years for as long as I can remember, after all. The second thing we might take from all this is the reminder that even if the UK does leave the EU, relations with Europe will not just stop dead; the migrant crisis, the continuing importance of NATO, and the simple fact of Europe’s being right there and linked to the UK by a tunnel and high-speed rail link all mean that some kind of relationship between the UK and most of the Continental European states must continue. The referendum will help decide what kind of relationship that will be, but it won’t end it any more than Charlemagne closing the Channel ports ended trade relations between the two powers. That did, however, apparently make quernstones impossible to get for a few years and some parallel to that is very easy to imagine. What European foods do you currently eat you’d be sorry to go without?

Buffalo mozzarella cheese

My personal candidate: looks horrible, tastes magnificent. By Luigi VersaggiFlickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=397091.

But the last thing we might not think of without this prompt is the rôle of Northumbria. Obviously, now that’s part of England, but Scotland is not, and while in Charlemagne’s time the Picts were a whole separate quantity (albeit also in contact with the Continent) now we might be reminded by Offa’s rival kings that Scotland may yet be in a position to reach its own agreements with Europe, when the current alliance falls apart as did that between Mercia and Northumbria and the campaign for secession heats up again.10 What would that mean? When Scotland looked like devolving properly last time many people talked about moving there to benefit from various more friendly aspects of its fiscal system and so on; if the UK left the EU and then a subsequently separated Scotland rejoined, I think a lot of businesses might look to relocate, and Scotland’s economic case for devolution start to look a lot more survivable. I can’t quite imagine it doing to England what Wessex eventually did to Mercia, but this, and the other points above, might all serve to remind the uncertain voter that there are more voices in this dispute than just UK voters and Brussels.11 Whatever your own priorities are, it might be worth thinking before you vote about Offa, Charlemagne, pilgrims, exiles and even quernstones, and considering just which bits of history we’re about to repeat.


1. There are two obvious books that cover this theme, Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century: the Ford Lectures, 1943 (Oxford 1946) and Joanna Story, Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-870 (Aldershot 2003); both of them offer much more context for all of what follows than I can give here.

2. The letter was probably written by the Northumbrian cleric and teacher Alcuin, since it survives in collections of his other letters, but it went out in Charlemagne’s name. It is printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), “Alcuini sive Albini Epistolae” in Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae in quarto) IV (Berlin 1895, repr. Hannover 1994), online here, pp. 1-481 at no. 100, and translated in Steven Allott (transl.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804: his life and letters (York 1974), ep. 100, and in Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents, vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. no. 197.

3. For background on Offa see most quickly Simon Keynes, “The kingdom of the Mercians in the eighth century” in David Hill & Margaret Worthington (edd.), Aethelbald and Offa: two eighth-century kings of Mercia. Papers from a conference held in Manchester in 2000, Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon studies, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 383 (Oxford 2005), pp. 1-26.

4. On the black stones, see Meinrad Pohl, “Quern-Stones and Tuff as Indicators of Medieval European Trade Patterns” in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology Vol. 20 (London 2010), pp. 148-153, DOI: 10.5334/pia.348, whence the illustration (fig. 1).

5. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard tells us of the king’s grief at this event in his Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1965), online here, trans. David Ganz in idem (ed.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2009), pp. 17-44, III.19. I’m not sure where the memorial is edited, but it is translated in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2005), no. 9.4.

6. Admittedly, the obvious migrants, the Vikings, hadn’t really started migrating as yet, though as we have seen here they were a danger; as to the agricultural crisis, 792 and 793 had been famine years in the Carolingian Empire, as is recorded in the Royal Frankish Annals, printed as Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni Francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) VI (Hannover 1895; repr. 1950), online here, transl. in Bernard Scholz & Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), online here, pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21, s. aa 792 & 793.

7. In addition to the works in n. 1 above see here Janet L. Nelson, “Carolingian Contacts” in Michelle P. Brown and Carol Ann Farr (edd.), Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe (London 2001), pp. 126-143.

8. The source here is the Gesta Abbatum Fontellanensium, printed as Fernand Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1936), but I don’t have a detailed cite, only the knowledge that the relevant extract is translated in Whitelock, English Historical Documents doc. no. 20.

9. Opinions differ here, of course: see Chris Wickham, “Overview: production, distribution and demand” in Inge Lyse Hansen & Wickham (edd.), The Long Eighth Century: production, distribution and demand, The Transformation of the Roman World 11 (Leiden 2000), pp. 345-377.

10. On Scotland’s connections to Europe in this era see Patrick Wormald, “The emergence of the ‘Regnum Scottorum’: a Carolingian hegemony?” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in Dark Age Britain: the proceedings of a day conference held on 18 February 1995, St John’s House Papers 5 (St Andrews 1996), pp. 131-160; Edward James, “The Continental Context” in Sally M. Foster (ed.), The St. Andrews sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 240-249.

11. Simon Keynes, “Mercia and Wessex in the ninth century” in Brown & Farr, Mercia, pp. 310-328.

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Seminar CVI: Carolingian men of the Word

As you’ll have noticed I make a habit of going to the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, but I make a special point of it when someone I know from my host institution, wherever it be, is presenting, partly to show support but also because it’s sometimes the only time you get to hear them do their stuff.1 On this occasion, however, my affiliations were confused, because Laura Carlson, despite teaching at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, had also at this point just become Past and Present Fellow at the Institute, and it was in that capacity she’d been asked to speak on the 26th October 2011. I guess that insofar as I’m a regular at the seminar and a Carolingianist I’d have been going if she’d been coming from the moon. In fact, if someone from the moon was presenting I’d probably be there regardless of the topic. But, dear reader, I digress! Laura’s title was, “Creating a Christian Language: letter and spirit at the Carolingian court”.

First page of the book of Exodus in the Grandval or Alcuin Bible, British Library MS Additional 10546

First page of the book of Exodus in the Grandval or Alcuin Bible, British Library MS Additional 10546; click through for a fantastic illuminated page from it on the BL's site, but for reasons that will become clear I wanted some text

This was the first time I’d been to the Earlier Middle Ages seminar in exile, in parts of Senate House I’d never been to before, and it was also the first time I’d heard Laura present on the core of her research, so in both ways I got something of a shock. I’ve not had to think this hard to stay up with a paper since that Peter Sarris one of 2010. The experience of Laura’s style is not quite so much like being caught amidst a fifty-minute rockfall, but this was densely-packed stuff. What she was arguing was—assuming my notes were and are up to the job of preserving it, a very topical concern as you will see—that the collection of intellectuals whom Charlemagne kept around his court at the peak period of his reign collectively developed something like a new Christian philosophy of language. The highly international nature of the group partly forced such reflections upon them, but much more so did the reliance of their work, and Latin Christianity at large, on, well, Latin. This court group was, as readers of this blog will know by now, very concerned with the correctness of texts, which is understandable when you’re dealing with the supposed Word of God, and perhaps, if one follows certain arguments, when some of your scholars come from a background where the ruling powers of the day insist that they have a text that is more purely the Word of God, because God speaks in Arabic and the transmission of the Qu’ran is doctrinally understood to be perfect.2 Of course, the Christians were not and are not making any claims about God speaking in Latin, or even the writers of the actual Bible text, so problems of accuracy are inherent to the whole idea of Latin Christianity. But this kind of concern pushed these thinkers, and especially Alcuin as Laura set it forth for us, to worry about deeper issues: can written words in any language actually express the divine accurately? Even if they can, is the human reader actually up to understanding it correctly? And how does information pass from the eye to the inchoate mind anyway? When your understanding of human consciousness doesn’t involve electro-chemistry but does involve the idea of a separable, non-physical soul, this is an issue. The soul contains God and can presumably understand Him perfectly; but the body is not perfect, so if you need the body to partake of the Word, aren’t you in trouble from the get-go?3 And so on.

Now obviously this is partly grammar, because Latin grammar, even though pagan, became a tool that one needed in order to be able to understand both world and Word (since the two do not separate). But it’s also philosophy, because in order to explain how Scripture can save it was necessary to come up with a workable account of man’s ability to perceive God. For Alcuin, as Laura argued it, one important aspect of man’s unique rationality was his ability to perceive the abstract and communicate it; man can, that is, envisage things that are invisible. This is obviously relevant, and blurs the line between philosophy and theology a great deal, which allowed the people thinking about this to use Aristotelian categories, obtained largely via Augustine’s similar reflections, as a basis for breaking down man’s faculties for examination like this. The whole direction of thinking, thus, allowed these guys to reclaim and redirect pagan philosophy to a Christian project. With this work done, Hieronymian worries about being damned as a Ciceronian not a Christian could begin to recede: the explosive potential of Classical thinking for a Christian paradigm is defused and a text-based Christianity finally fully equipped to proceed into medieval Europe.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Alcuin, being patronising as usual (from Wikimedia Commons)

As I say, this is harder than I usually like to think, though I did a bit of history of ideas stuff in my undergraduate years and can still do the dance up to a point. One point that looms large from my perspective, though, is what did Charlemagne get from all this? This is a live concern because it’s all too easy to envisage it in terms of the university and very current concerns about research and teaching, not least because Alcuin did teach this stuff: it’s concerns about what language actually does and how the understanding of it works that make dialogic question-and-answer topics like “what a ship is”, answered with “a lodging-house in any place”, anything other than smug and glib.4 This leads to a faintly sour tone in some of the writing on this kind of topic, like a cat playing up to visitors after its family have a child: here’s a patron who understands that governments should fund intellectual endeavour (or a cat) for its own sake, current paymasters please take note, etc. We have to think about it not in terms of our own funding cycles, relevant though it can be made, and more in the terms of Charlemagne’s priorities, which were, really, quite different.5

So, was the main point of having these scholars at court to train up a new generation of civil servant nobles all alive with imperial loyalties, and this stuff was the research he let the scholars do to keep them happy? Or, at the other end, was Charlemagne, whom his biographer pictures eagerly chewing down chunks of Augustine's City of God alongside his more corporeal food at mealtimes, also keen on sorting out and understanding this stuff?6 It was obviously to these scholars’ general interest to show the king as being concerned with these things, as it might encourage other kings to give them a job (a concern raised on this occasion by Susan Reynolds) but on the other hand we have substantial efforts to provide a standard Bible text (see first image) and a corrected liturgy that obviously required this kind of scholarly effort and which, if not as uniformly rolled out as we once thought, still had an effect. And of course there was masses of legislation that partook of this moral agenda of correctio and also comes from this general intellectual ferment, to the extent that scholars now hang arguments about its content off which of these scholars they think wrote it, though this does take us into rather more troubling concerns of who, if anyone, were the readers.7 Given that I work so far away from this court, both in space and time, I am naturally more interested in the reception than the generation of these texts, which were around in my area to be read in some cases, but papers like this remind me firstly that there is still a lot we don’t understand about their generation which may still be possible to work out, secondly that the people doing it were genuinely really clever and that being trapped into thinking of them as religion-constrained Dark Age mystics just isn’t going to help understand the Carolingian Empire and its effects on subsequent European civilisation at all, and thirdly that I think that, whatever my particular intellectual skills may be, they’re not up to doing this kind of work so I’m glad that Laura is.


1. Of course, that support can, as in this instance, be assuring a matter of assuring the speaker beforehand that we would be tallying all their uses of the word ‘epistemological’ to be used in evidence against them. But, you know, supportively.

2. By which I mean, more or less, those arguments set out by Yitzhak Hen in his article, “Charlemagne’s Jihad” in Viator: medieval and Renaissance studies Vol. 37 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 33-51, which really long-term readers may remember I had some issues with.

3. It strikes me now I’ve written that up that there’s some really messy implications for the Eucharist down this road of thinking, and in fact, for the whole question of the Word made Flesh. I suppose this is why we could have hundreds of years of bitter dispute about Christology, isn’t it.

4. This is from Alcuin’s “Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico“, usually known as the Disputatio Pippini because there’s really only so much of Alcuin’s style anyone normal can stomach. It is edited by W. Suchier in L. W. Daly & Suchier (edd.), Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi, Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 24 (Urbana 1939), pp. 137-143, and translated in full by Gillian Spraggs here. For more information see Martha Bayless, “Alcuin’s Diputatio Pippini and the early medieval riddle tradition” in Guy Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 157-178. I mean, it’s clever, encouraging, witty and affectionate, but I think it can still be smug and glib besides these other notable qualities, which is kind of how I feel about Alcuin in general, you’ll no doubt have noticed.

5. For a start, I imagine any cats around Charlemagne’s court had to justify their keep in terms of dead rodents, although they probably didn’t have to collect all their kills together and grade their bloody impact every five years.

6. Einhard, Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1960), transl. David Ganz in idem (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth 2008), III.24, relevant portion also in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. More generally on the Carolingian cultural project, try Giles Brown, “Introduction: the Carolingian Renaissance” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 1-46, and, really, the whole of that volume if you’re interested.

7. Hen’s “Charlemagne’s Jihad” an example, in as much as its argument hinges on the background he imputes to Bishop Theodulf of Orléans; for readership concerns Christina Pössel, “Authors and Recipients of Carolingian Capitularies, 779-829” in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Pössel & Peter Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12, Denkschriften der phil.-hist. Klasse 344 (Wien 2008), pp. 253-274.

Seminars XCVI, XCVII & XCVIII: lectures and learning in Oxford

Returning the story of my academic life to these shores, there is a triennial lecture series here in Oxford established in the name of Elias Avery Lowe, the man behind Codices Latini Antiquiores, which if you’re a certain sort of scholar is a second Bible (and with nearly as many books) and if you’re any other sort of scholar you may never use.1 He was a palæographer, and the lectures are about palæography, and so it was a good sign of, I don’t know, something, that this year they were given by Professor David Ganz. I had hoped to make it to these because David is always erudite and interesting and has often been a great help to me, but I was thwarted in this by various factors of timing and I was only able to get to the second one, “Latin Manuscript Books Before 800, 2: scribes and patrons”, which was given on Monday 16th May. This is to say, as you may have spotted, that it was the day after Kalamazoo ended, and so I was there on the back of a few hours bad sleep on an airliner and a five-hour time-shift, but I was there.

Letter from Jerome to Pope Damasus IV on the correction of the Bible, in Codex Sangallensis 48

Letter from Jerome to Pope Damasus IV on the correction of the Bible, in Codex Sangallensis 48 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The sad result of this is that my notes, while quite entertaining where legible, I think don’t always have much to do with what David was saying, as my subconscious was clearly getting the upper hand of my listening ear at some points. Nonetheless, I feel fairly safe in telling you that David talked about:

  • copyists, starting with the kinds of errors and corrections that we know about because they were faithfully copied over (apparently St Jerome excused himself in one manuscript from fourteen different sorts of scribal error, which is proof if any were needed that pedantry does not bar one from Heaven);
  • about the diffuseness of this sample and the very small number of scribes we have who show up more than once, which shows the vast number of books there must once have been if there was even occasional employment for all these people that we only get one glimpse of (like die-links in numismatics, this, I like it so I hope David actually said it);
  • about the authority for changes, and the respect for manuscript integrity that leads to colophons telling us who copied a manuscript’s exemplar being carried over into the therefore anonymous copies that we have, which happens in four ninth-century manuscripts of things copied by Bœthius whose actual scribes we have no idea about;
  • and about how difficult it was, when only 8% of manuscripts (taking Lowe’s CLA as an inventory) of this period even name scribes, of working out who was employing them. Almost all of those 8% are churchmen, so ‘the Church’ would be a simplistic answer, but as long as one of them is a notary (and Vandalguis (sp?) who wrote our manuscript of the Laws of the Alemans claimed so to be) there must have been other structures.

I am guessing that David will call me out on any errors here, in fact I entreat him so to do as I’m sure there must be some and I don’t want to copy them over…

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where Professor
Sarah Foot is a lay canon by right of her post

Then two days later a rather different occasion, involving more gowns and gilt and fewer images, when Sarah Foot, who is Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History in these parts, gave her long-delayed inaugural lecture, “Thinking with Christians: doing ecclesiastical history in a secular age”. In checking the date I find that the Theology Faculty evidently recorded this and already have it online as a podcast, so you could listen to it yourself, but what you will get if you do is quite a clever balancing act between the interests of various parts of her audience, the Anglo-Saxonists who know Sarah’s work,2 the theologians and canons who are her new colleagues, and the University’s old hands who will turn out for any event where lots of people will be wearing gowns in public and there will be free wine. Thus there is much about the history of the Chair to which Sarah has now succeeded and the denominational politics of the English Church that have sometimes dictated what the theologians of the University thought were the important things for a church historian to be working on (viz. the origins and basis of their denomination), and about the increasingly social basis of the discipline since the 1970s (in a kaleidoscopic barrage of citation that included Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Robert Moore, Clifford Geertz and Jacques le Goff to name but a few) and the threat she perceived in it that ecclesiastical history per se might become (as with so much else) just a particular flavour of cultural history. Sarah suggested that having had a ‘cultural turn’ now it might be good to have a ‘religious turn’, linking faith and thought as a theme of study. If that sounds like an interesting manifesto, you could go listen to how she argues it.

Psalm 23 in the St Hubert Bible, one of the manuscripts of Theodulf of Orléans's corrected text of the Bible (British Library MS Additional 24142)

Psalm 23 in the St Hubert Bible, one of the manuscripts of Theodulf of Orléans's corrected text of the Bible (British Library MS Additional 24142)

After that, to my shock, I seem not to have been to any kind of academic public speaking for a week and a half. Perhaps I was full up, or perhaps (more likely) teaching and deadlines collaborated to keep me from it. Either way, I resumed with Laura Carlson’s presentation of a paper called “An Encyclopedic Theology: Theodulf of Orléans and the Carolingian Wiki-Bible” to the Oxford Medieval Seminar on the 30th May. I don’t want to say too much about this, because I notice that Ms Carlson has what looks like a related paper coming up at the Institute of Historical Research and so to do so might constitute spoilers. Broadly, however, she was drawing out the difference between two different Bible-editing projects running simultaneously at the high point of the Carolingian Renaissance, Alcuin‘s single authoritative text as found in the Tours Bibles, and Theodulf’s comparative version, which drew as she sees it on a considerable range of texts, Italian and Anglo-Saxon themselves drawing on Greek, Vulgate, Cassiodorian and Irish traditions, and tried to incorporate the useful bits of all of them, as well as occasional Hebrew readings, slices of Patristic theological commentary, Visigothic Law and Spanish spellings (because, as we have discussed, Theodulf thought he was a Goth). Now, whether all this justified the title “Wiki-Bible” or not would be a vexed question (`citation needed’!) but it does go to show once more that the idea that the entire mission of the Carolingian intellectual court was standardisation needs questioning. Not least because, as Ms Carlson pointed out in questions, neither Alcuin or Theodulf ever cited their own versions of the Bible when doing other sorts of study!


1. E. A. Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores: a palaeographical guide to Latin ms. prior to the 9th century (1934-1971), 12 vols, with various subsequent addenda by others. Lowe’s lesser work is largely assembled in a very handsome two-volume collection, Palaeographical Papers, ed. Ludwig Bieler (Oxford 1972). I’m assuming that David Ganz’s publications need no introduction here but if you didn’t realise quite how voluminous they are then this list on the Regesta Imperii OPAC will give you an idea. More than can easily go in a footnote!

2. Very lately added to with her Æthelstan, the first King of England (New Haven 2011) but perhaps so far more famous for her work on female religious, such as Veiled Women: the Disappearance of Nuns from Anglo-Saxon England (Aldershot 2000), 2 vols, or on the development of the idea of England, classically in “The making of ‘Angelcynn‘: English identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 6 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 25-50, repr. in Roy M. Liuzza (ed.), Old English literature: critical essays (New Haven 2002), pp. 51-78, as well as of course much more here also.

The first Viking raid on England or Francia

Here’s a little thing that narks me every now and then. This comes up occasionally in teaching, where I can set it straight, occasionally someone is wrong about it on the Internet (which never ends well) but I was quite surprised to find a related version in a certain large book I’m still sporadically making my way through, and that has me worried enough to set out my thinking. The thing in question is a supposed fact, the dates of the first Viking attacks on the kingdoms of Western Europe.

Church of St Mary and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Lindisfarne

Church of St Mary and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Lindisfarne (from Wikimedia Commons)

[Edit: a very cogent point from Julia Barrow in comments has meant I’ve seriously overhauled this paragraph and the next. Further edit: there has also developed in the comments a very erudite dispute about what exactly Alcuin was thinking when he wrote the letters I mockingly pastiche in what follows, and if that is likely to matter to you you should have a look below.] For England, canonically, it was Northumbria that was first to be attacked, with the sack of the monastery Lindisfarne in 793. Now, OK, let’s be quite clear, Lindisfarne in 793 was not a good place to be. However much the famous letter of Alcuin about it may work it up into eschatological froth, people surely died or were kidnapped and the monastery plundered.1 The only problem is that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that the first Viking attack was in the reign of King Beorhtric of Wessex, which we put from 786 to 802, when a boat hauled up on Portland sands, the king’s reeve Beaduheard went down to tell them, I suppose, the contemporary equivalent of “you can’t park that there” and they killed him. That, I grant you, could still put Lindisfarne first, but the Chronicle‘s compilers (working around 892) explicitly said the Portland attack was “the first ships of the Danish men which sought out the land of the English race”.2 So, at the least, if you want to ignore what the Chronicle says you need to make that argument or one like it before you go and take Alcuin’s words (which have their own moral purpose, as no doubt did the letter that must have been his source) instead.

Schematic stemma of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related texts

Schematic stemma of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related texts (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now in fact that argument is not hard to make, because the earliest manuscript, known as A or the Parker Chronicle, of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t mention the sack of Lindisfarne. In fact it doesn’t have an annal for 793 at all. Notice of the sack only occurs in three later manuscripts (known as D, E, and F), all of which had, one way or another, incorporated parts of a set of northern annals that we no longer have, except via these manuscripts and the twelfth-century Historia Regum, written at Durham, whose author Simeon also seems to have had them to use.2bis Can it be that the Chronicle‘s compilers didn’t know Lindisfarne had been sacked, a hundred years on? It seems unlikely, so perhaps they were just keen to make sure that the real first attack clearly happened in Wessex, where the Chronicle was being compiled and where King Alfred was fairly keen on getting people on board dealing with the massive threat that Viking attacks had by that time become. In which case, of course, they may have adopted the vague dating for exactly the reason that they were aware that Lindisfarne was attacked first. But there are good reasons to suppose that if they thought that, even so, they were wrong.

Charter of King Offa of Mercia for the Kentish abbey of Lyminge, done at a synod in Kent (Sawyer 123)

Charter of King Offa of Mercia for the Kentish abbey of Lyminge, done at a synod in Kent (Sawyer 123), sadly not the right synod or charter but at least illustrative

You see, there’s a charter of King Offa of the Mercians (and also, he claims in it, now awarded the sceptre of government of the people of Kent by God), that he issued at a synod at Clofesho (which was apparently a vastly important place then and is now unknown) in 792.3 Offa seems to have been in generous mood, or perhaps really urgent to pacify Kent, as the document is a blanket confirmation that all the churches of Kent were to be exempt from various services and dues. There were however some things they still had to pay when necessary. This was a classic Mercian strategy, indeed since the 1970s it’s been thought of as one of the things that made Mercia great, but usually it extended only to providing soldiers on royal demand, repairing fortresses and maintaining bridges.4 On this occasion, however, the first thing these churches still had to stump up for was, “an expedition within Kent against seaborne pagans arriving with fleets, or against the East Saxons if necessity compels”. Now, against this, it must be admitted that the charter as we have it is not an original. It was once preserved at St Augustine’s Canterbury but now survives in two thirteenth-century cartularies in London. So it could be, shall we say, improved, but if so, the bit about attacking Essex would be a very odd thing to add! Mind you, it looks odd in its day’s terms as well, it’d been a while since Essex had a separate political existence, but all the same I’m not inclined to dismiss it straight away. If it’s not some scribe’s over-active imagination, anyway, in 792 Offa was expecting pagan sea-raiders in Kent, which rather suggests that there had already been some. Once again the sources are awkward, but one has to at least explain why one trusts one and distrusts another before stating things as fact. There just aren’t any safe facts here.

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious from Dorestad

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious from Dorestad, hit by the Vikings even more often than Lindisfarne

The same debate can be had about the Continent. On page 587 of that certain large book for example, we are told, “the first Viking raid on Francia, from neighbouring Denmark, was in 834, in the context of Louis [the Pious]’s 833-4 conflict with his sons”.5 Now, I’m not going to say this is wrong, you must realise; I believe that if you stuck the word “documented” in there somewhere it would be cast-iron true, and the actual point, which is about how quickly enemies of a kingdom might capitalise on its political problems, is perfectly valid. But, as with Offa, we may suspect there was more going on already behind the scenes, because in 800 King Charles of the Franks and Lombards, as he still then was, spent some of the earlier part of the year touring “the coastal region adjoining the Gallic ocean; he created a fleet upon this sea because it was infested with pirates at that time [and] organised defences”.6 There’s really only one likely set of pirates out there at this time, and whereas the attack in 834 was a political one, we know that, well, by 802 and likely earlier there were also presumably-independent Danish raiders in the English Channel, see above.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Alcuin, being patronising as usual (from Wikimedia Commons)

What we are facing here is that no-one realised this whole Viking thing was going to be the theme of the century when it started. Even Alcuin, who is all “OMG it’s like the sack of Rome all over again, nothing as bad as this has happened in English Christian history, are you really sure you guys weren’t being sinful because you know God does nothing by chance“,7 did not go on to say, “I bet this isn’t the last we see of this; run to Chester-le-Street!” and predict the First Viking Age. The people compiling the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle however, with a century’s bitter hindsight, did know when they came across some note of the Portland attack, in whatever sources they had to build the Chronicle out of, that that was the story of which that attack should be seen as part, and so do we. But that doesn’t mean that whoever had written it down first recognised it as such, and that they knew it was the first such attack; it just means that the Chronicle compilers thought they could make the case that it was. The earlier attacks on Kent that Offa seems to have been providing against, likewise, were not recognised as the beginning of a centuries-long society-changing war; he made no special provision other to than ensure that the regular military response would not get smaller. How could they have known, after all? So the first Viking attacks, in either England or Francia, are almost certainly not recorded, but there is good reason to say that anyone who gives you the canonical dates for them without a crucial word like “known” or “recorded” or similar is, well, probably talking about something else really.


1. Alcuin’s letter is actually two letters, printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae) IV (Berlin 1895), Alcuini sive Albini epistolae nos 20 & 21 (pp. 57-59), one of about ten letters he immediately sent to people in England trying to drum up help and support for the beleaguered monastery. No. 20 is translated in full in S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804 (York 1974), pp. 72-73, whence repr. in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2004), pp. 123-125, probably in the first edition as well and I expect several other places, but those are the ones I have on the shelf so that’s the reference you get.

2. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s. a. 787 for 789, here cit. from Michael Swanton (transl./ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996).

2bis. A brief discussion of the manuscripts can be found ibid., pp. xxi-xxix, and a much more thorough one in D. Whitelock (ed./transl.), English Historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979, repr. 1996), pp. 113-131, but I don’t know as I write how well that now stands up against the latest scholarship.

3. Now best ed. in Susan Kelly (ed.), The Charters of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and Minster-in-Thanet, Anglo-Saxon Charters 4 (Oxford 1995), no. 15, but of course also available via Sean Miller’s ASCharters.net here, whence the Latin: “nisi expeditione intra Cantiam contra paganos marinos cum classis migrantibus uel in australes Saxones si necessitas cogit“. I would, of course, like to cite it from the supposed replacement for that site at King’s College London but as usual it’s down so I can’t. Plus ça change.

4. Discussed classically in Nicholas Brooks, “The Development of Military Obligations in Eighth- and Ninth-Century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69–84, back when CUP still printed Festschriften, repr. in Brooks, Communities and Warfare 700–1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47 and in David Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: Basic Readings (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105.

5. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 587.

6. Royal Frankish Annals s. a. 800, printed in Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829. Qui dicuntur Annales laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) VI (Hannover 1895); here cit. from P. D. King (transl.), Charlemagne: translated sources (Lancaster 1987), p. 92.

7. I paraphrase, obviously; this is not Alcuin’s style really. I realise he was a famous teacher and a moralist and theologian of the first order and so forth, and yes, at the same time as questioning his old acquaintances’ morality he was also trying to kick an international (or at least interregnal) relief effort into action, but I can’t help feeling that Alcuin was not very much fun, you know? I would have been in Theodulf’s camp, or more likely waiting for Walahfrid and Eriugena to arrive.

Charlemagne’s ‘Jihad’

Charlemagne inflicting baptism on defeated Saxons (from Project Gutenberg)
I have before me the current issue of Viator, and I confess that it has annoyed me. Not just because of the frequent typoes, which this volume’s articles seem particularly stricken by, though those do betray a need for what an acquaintance of mine termed ‘better-quality pedantry’ among both writers and copy-editors. No, the particular thing that’s got to me is Yitzhak Hen’s article, which is entitled simply “Charlemagne’s Jihad”.1 After discussing it with my housemate, between myself and whom the Cambridge University Library’s copy of this volume has probably spent more time here than in the UL, I’ve pinned down several things I object to about it and thought they could go here for the time being. (Hyperlinks to texts or references throughout, mostly from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook; I know it’s not exactly translation at the cutting edge but it’s easy to use and will do to illustrate).

The article is mainly a well-supported and well-argued reassessment of Charlemagne’s policies in the conquest of the Saxons, and it contends that the forced conversion measures envisaged in the Capitulare de Partibus Saxoniae were in fact no more than a short-lived aberration of policy against a background of aggressive but non-coercive mission work. I have no problem with this, or with the redating of the Capitulare to c. 792 that it entails; that all seems to me fairly plausible, and I like both the reasoning and the use of evidence to support it.

The problems start when Dr Hen offers a source for the aberration in the form of the influence of Theodulf of Orléans on its drafting. That’s not implausible, but he blames Theodulf for the forced conversion ethic on the grounds of his familiarity with Muslim Spain, where he was after all born and raised, and therefore with the ethic of jihad. He cites numerous works of Middle Eastern scholarship on the theory of jihad in Islam, and also draws textual parallels between the Capitulare and the so-called ‘Covenant of ‘Umar’, a document purporting to come from c. 640 which regulated in a newly fundamentalist way the rights of Christians and Jews living under a Muslim government, including things like distinctive clothing, that churches higher than mosques were to be demolished, that there were to be no repairs to religious buildings and no new ones built and so on. Hen also cites Islamic jurisprudence as support on all this, while admitting in a footnote that it’s exceedingly unlikely that that kind of work had yet made it to the West (p. 46 & n. 83). The only actual primary source cited in this section is a piece of the work of a little-known Baghdadi historian, Ibn Habib, that uses the actual term “jihad” only of the 711 invasion, and that from a man who was probably writing in the 840s of a hundred and thirty years earlier and a few hundred miles west. Other work apparently unknown to Hen has stressed by contrast that actually, the jihad ethic really isn’t testified to in Spain until the arrival of the Almoravids.2

Another thing that Hen doesn’t seem to know, or at least admit, is that the era of the floruit of Ibn Habib is actually a good time to be seeing such rhetoric in the Middle East, because since 847 the ruler in Baghdad had been Caliph al-Mutawakkil, who was much hotter on this kind of discrimination than his predecessors. And Hen certainly doesn’t admit that that’s the point at which the ‘Covenant of ‘Umar’ is first evidenced in text, though he does admit (p. 46) that we have no idea when it really comes from, whilst also expressing a belief that its provisions must have been plain knowledge to all in both East and West and, apparently, that Theodulf could parallel its provisions in ‘his’ capitulary (pp. 48-9). A study from more than a decade ago tried to link this text and the contemporary Baghdad persecution to the martyrs of Córdoba and concluded that there was no real way it could have been known or influential then, and those episodes were a full fifty years after this capitulary’s latest possible date.3 Next, I myself don’t find the fact that the legislation involves a ten per cent annual render from those converted a convincing parallel with the Muslim jizya or poll tax for two reasons: firstly, though Hen contends otherwise, the jizya was usually an eleventh,4 and secondly, the idea of a one-tenth render on those who profess Christianity payable to the Church is not that radical in Carolingian Francia, or indeed anywhere since, where it is usually called tithe.

Supposing Theodulf nonetheless to be au fait with the prescriptions of the Suria on the ‘people of the book’, Hen says that the adoption of forced conversion of the Saxons represents a brief patch when Theodulf had effective control of religious policy and that it was cancelled pretty much as soon as Alcuin could write to the Emperor and let him know it had difficult theological implications (p. 50).

Now, I have no particular affection for Theodulf, who does not come across in his writings as a pleasant man, but this theory involves supposing firstly that he had lived under a régime of forced conversion in Spain, for which there is no evidence; secondly that he knew the texts behind this, which would involve at least parts of the Qu’ran, which no-one has ever spotted and which would be very unusual in a Christian Andalusi teenager,5 and allegedly the ‘Covenant of ‘Umar’, which is pretty much disproved by Lapiedra’s article cited below; that he further approved of the methods that the Muslims were using on his Spanish coreligionists (except that they weren’t); and that no-one else at court thought there was a problem with imitating the Muslims either.

In fact there are far closer parallels for forced conversion policies, all directed at the Jews of course. Hen mentions the policies of King Sisebut of the Visigoths but assures us that they were deprecated by Isidore of Seville, whom he poses as Theodulf’s first port of call for guidance (p. 47: “Theodulf knew all that.”) He completely fails to mention however the subsequent Visigothic anti-Jewish legislation (although he references work on it (p. 47 n. 88), which could be called misrepresenting his sources), or Byzantine policies of the same sort under Heraclius which, Tom Kitchen kindly informs me, were to an extent also briefly promulgated by King Dagobert in Francia under Byzantine influence. One doesn’t need Theodulf to explain the use of those precedents however…

So there isn’t really any evidence offered to support Hen’s theory at all, possibly because there is none to offer. Nonetheless, he winds up saying as follows: “one should not ask whether Theodulf could have known the Muslim notion of jihad or the dhimmi restrictions prescribed by the Pact of ‘Umar. After all, he grew up in a place where these restrictions were commonly known and perhaps implemented.” He has of course not proved any of this. He goes on: “… we must assume that he had a fair amount of knowledge about the Muslims of al-Andalus, their religion and their civilisation. Those who argue otherwise will need to prove their point, and not vice versa.”

Now this is not how we do peer-reviewed history, I thought; I have penalised students for making up theories for which there’s no evidence and I’m sure Dr Hen must have also. However, since the rest of the article is good I understand how this has got into print. All the same, until he can show:

  • any evidence elsewhere of Theodulf knowing and using any Muslim text, even the Qu’ran
  • knowledge of the Covenant of ‘Umar in al-Andalus at a time when Theodulf could have heard of this, even from afar
  • any general currency of ideas of jihad in al-Andalus in Theodulf’s or indeed Charlemagne’s time
  • any good reason to favour this derivation of the Capitulare‘s provisions over the far closer ones from Visigothic and even Frankish legislation

… I think Dr Hen may have to wait a while for the theory to be considered so serious that it needs refuting…

1. Y. Hen, “Charlemagne’s Jihad” in Viator: medieval and Renaissance studies Vol. 37 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 33-51.

2. E. Manzano Moreno, “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe, edited by D. Agius & R. Hitchcock (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96.

3. E. Lapiedra Gutiérrez, “Los martíres de Córdoba y la política anticristiana contemporánea en Oriente” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 453-463 with Spanish résumé p. 453 and English abstract p. 463.

4. For full discussion of what a frontier city like Theodulf’s Zaragoza might have paid by way of taxes, see E. Manzano Moreno, La Frontera de al-Andalus en Época de los Omeyas, Bibliotheca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991), pp. 304-310, focussing on mostly-Christian Toledo.

5. Andalusi Christian knowledge of the Qu’ran is discussed by N. Daniel, “Spanish Christian sources of information about Islam (ninth to thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qantara 15 (1994), pp. 365-84. Hen reports having consulted Ann Christys, but does not cite her book Christians in al-Andalus 711-1000 (Abingdon 2002); it is worth the inspection for those interested in questions like this.