Tag Archives: Charlemagne

Dealings with Jerusalem before the eleventh century

A vice that I am prone to is that of poking at other people’s research areas without knowing very much about it, as has often been evidenced here—I won’t link, out of embarrassment. Nonetheless, I can’t help it; if someone is doing something interesting it seems only natural to me to turn it around and over mentally looking for the questions that I would ask if I were doing this thing. This post is about such a question, and I can’t remember exactly what sparked it off; it may have been getting ready to teach Carolingians and picking up on the peculiar ways in which Charlemagne’s empire tried to make itself felt in the Mediterranean, but it is more likely to have been sparked by a conversation with Daniel Reynolds, currently of Birmingham, who is the person whose research area this is and who will doubtless be the one to tell me what’s wrong with this post.1

Medieval map of Jerusalem

Medieval map of Jerusalem, source unclear

Dan is a man who works on a broad swathe of related things but central to many of them is the theme of pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the era before the Crusades. It’s not that there is no work on this, but it is almost all done from the perspective of the pilgrims, and Jerusalem itself, its community and its patriarchal rulers, are not really studied as part of what was going on, or such is the argument.2 And fair enough! I shall leave that to him and await his publications eagerly. But thinking about this left me with a question of my own, which he will in fact probably answer but still has me wondering meanwhile. If you look at the very few times that we know about the actual patriarchs being involved in contact with the West, other than supposedly providing bags of relics to passing pilgrims, until the tenth century at least, it was really distant rulers with whom they engaged; St Martin of Tours, if he counts as a ruler, St Radegund of Poitiers (who was at least royal), Charlemagne and Louis the Pious as Kings of the Franks, and the outlier case, King Alfred the Great of Wessex, and sometimes, though not that often, the popes in Rome. Once the tenth century gets going the number of high-ranking pilgrims becomes such that the picture clouds and in the eleventh century everyone and his wife was going or so it sometime seems, but before that official contact was almost limited to these kings of the Western seaboard, rulers with at best a contested presence on the Mediterranean coast and at worst, none.3 Odd, no?

The Aedicule, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, containing the tomb that is said to be Jesus's, as it now is

The Aedicule, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, containing the tomb that is said to be Jesus’s, as it now is. Photo by Jlascarhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/jlascar/10350934835/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34030982

It’s usually clear enough what these rulers got from their contact with the Holy Sepulchre, that being the reinforcement of their position and status by the recognition of Christ’s own shrine and its custodians, although that only had the value it did because so few other people put themselves in a position to claim it. Only Charlemagne could be said to have provided anything very much for the patriarchs and the actual Church of Jerusalem, however, and they had to make some pretty big gestures to get even that, ‘that’ probably being a hostel for Frankish pilgrims and a certain amount of support for refurbishment of the city’s churches.4 Alfred sent alms, at least, but it’s not really clear what more they could give or what the patriarchs wanted from them, apart from recognition themselves I suppose. Was this something they didn’t get much of closer to home?

Medieval image of the Council of Chalcedon, 451

Medieval image of the Council of Chalcedon, 451, source unclear

Well, it doesn’t take long to think of reasons why that might be so. From pretty much the year 451 the Christian Church of the Empire was riven by disputes over the nature of Christ’s incarnation as man, exactly how divine He remained and how far He took on human characteristics. This sounds like a fine point for theologians only but consider, if He was not really human but fully divine, and therefore omnipotent and immortal, the meaning of His sacrifice on the Cross becomes hard to see, whereas if He was entirely human, then it was in some sense not really God who died for us, robbing the sacrifice of much of its significance. It gets right at the heart of Christian belief if you let it.5 A middle way proved hard to find, and for much of the Middle Ages Jerusalem was not on the same path as the imperial capital at Constantinople. Such was the case when the Persians captured the city in 614, and when Emperor Heraclius returned the True Cross to Jerusalem in 630, he didn’t let it stay there long for precisely that reason. Then within a few years the city fell to the armies of Islam, and was in some sense cut off from the Empire; its patriarchs still went to a few councils (perhaps because no-one dared tell Justinian II no) but the emperors in Constantinople were in some sense enemies of the lords of the land in a way that perhaps the Westerners were not.6 But it’s still surprising that we don’t know of more contact across this boundary: the empire was for a while shipping in money for its erstwhile citizens, after all…

Again, this changed in the eleventh century, as the Byzantines muscled back in to some kind of management of the Christian places of the city, which had indeed suffered considerably under Caliph al-Hakim (996-1021),7 but before then can it really be that the Franks looked like a safer, better bet? Or was it perhaps a problem finding interested support any closer to home? Was Jerusalem seen as enemy territory in some way? Or was it just that all the good relics were in Constantinople already and fascination with the actual places was a more Western phenomenon?8 I don’t know the answers to these questions. I probably know a man who does, but for now it seems a sort of fun to indicate what my questions, with me being an outsider to this bit of the field, would be if I started in on it.


1. No way perhaps more peculiar than the apparent Carolingian-period survey of the Holy Land’s churches edited and studied in Michael McCormick, Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land: wealth, personnel, and buildings of a Mediterranean church between antiquity and the Middle Ages, with a critical edition and translation of the original text (Washington DC 2011). As for Dan, some of his work is already available as Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin for the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022.

2. Certainly true of my two default references on the subject, which I use for lack of any others, Sir Steven Runciman, “The Pilgrimages to Palestine before 1095” in Kenneth M. Setton (ed.), A History of the Crusades, volume 1: the first hundred years, ed. Marshall W. Baldwin, 2nd edn. (Madison WI 1969), pp. 68-80, online here, and Aryeh Grabois, “Charlemagne, Rome and Jerusalem” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 58 (Bruxelles 1980), pp. 792-809, DOI: 10.3406/rbph.1981.3349, but also surprisingly common, if less so overall, in a more recent work I found while setting up this post, Colin Morris, The Sepulchre of Christ and the Medieval West: from the beginning to 1600 (Oxford 2005). The classic work for people in the field seems however to be John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades, 2nd edn. (Warminster 2002), non vidi, on whose deficiencies see Darby & Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims'”.

3. I realise that both Charlemagne and Louis the Pious could have reached the Mediterranean pretty much any time they wanted, but still, what with Venice, Benevento, rebellions on the Spanish March and so on they might not have had their choice about where to do so. Lists of these various dignitaries can be found in Runciman, “Pilgrimages to Palestine”, pp. 70-74, and Morris, Sepulchre of Christ, pp. 41-47 & 102-107 as well as, I assume, in Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims.

4. See Grabois, “Charlemagne, Rome and Jerusalem”, and for a more total statement of the possibilities, McCormick, Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land.

5. That is kind of my teaching statement of the issue, which is of course woefully and possibly heretically over-simple. For more detail, try Bernard Hamilton, The Christian World of the Middle Ages (Stroud 2003), pp. 59-99.

6. Morris, Sepulchre of Christ, pp. 90-98.

7. Runciman, “Pilgrimages to Palestine”, pp. 74-77, which notes at p. 77 Byzantine officials levying tolls on pilgrim traffic entering Jerusalem in 1056 despite the city’s continuing government by the Fatimid Caliphate (and notional concession to Charlemagne of two centuries earlier!); cf. Morris, Sepulchre of Christ, pp. 134-146.

8. On that continuing fascination, see as well as Darby & Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims'”, Robert Hoyland & Sarah Waidler, “Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis and the Seventh-Century Near East” in English Historical Review Vol. 129 (Oxford 2014), pp. 787-807.

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Ein schlechter Tag für Europa

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Leaving my own politics out of it, I wake this morning to the likelihoods that two funding bids I’m involved in will now collapse, that all our current European doctoral students are now going to have to rush to finish before the conditions of their residency in the UK change in unpredictable fashion, that working in Catalonia, Spain or France is shortly to get more expensive and hostile and that my chosen sector of employment will now see yet another shrinkage of income, with presumably resultant cuts in jobs. I am also going to have completely respin the next lecture I give on Charlemagne. The longer-term consequences… who knows?

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.

Seminar CCVII: unmistakable greatness in a hidden place

Let’s not talk here about the hiatus, then; it won’t surprise those of you who know me that I have a place to do that scheduled slightly further down the list anyway… Instead, straight back on the horse with a much-delayed seminar report from 4th June 2014 (because dammit I am a year behind again and determined not to stay that way), when I was present in the Institute of Historical Research because none other than Professor David Ganz was presenting to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, with a paper called “Charlemagne in the Margin: a new Carolingian text about Karolus Magnus”.

An illustration showing Æneas, hero of the eponymous Æneid, from a fifth-century manuscript of it now in the Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225

An illustration showing Æneas, hero of the eponymous Æneid, from a fifth-century manuscript of it now in the Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225.

The margin in question was an extra-large one left around a text of the works of Virgil that was made at the monastery of Saint-Amand in the modern Netherlands in the late-ninth century, that is, in the full flood of the so-called Carolingian Renaissance.1 In that prolific endeavour of cultural uplift, Virgil assumed a much larger rôle than one might expect the premier poet of pagan Rome would have in this thoroughly Christian endeavour. But not only were the scholars of the early Middle Ages quite conflicted about their inner love affair with the Latin Classics (at least at the top level; I don’t suppose people who liked The Golden Ass were quite as bothered as Saint Jerome2), Virgil’s was acknowledged to be about the best Latin that had ever veen written, and a very different sort of Latin to the Bible, the other main introduction to the written word. We are before textbooks here; the scholars of this age learnt their Latin the hard way, by starting at the top.3

Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 407, fo .151v

And now, the manuscript, and indeed the very page, in question, thanks to the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Gallica! The actual manuscript is Valenciennes, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 407, now fully online (click through). The bit we’re after is in the box at the right opposite the line that starts “Agm. agens clausus…”

Probably not so many people learnt their way through the whole thing, but we have, said David, forty ninth-century manuscripts of the Æneid and almost all of them were made to be glossed, that is, to have notes, references, clarification and so forth added in the margins. These usually came from a Christian commentator of the fourth century by the name of Marius Servius Honoratus, and his gloss travelled so closely with most manuscripts that bits of it could get copied into the main text by mistake, in some cases.4 In this case, however, there is more, since as an expert palæographer David was able to say that only the Servian gloss was added by the scribes of the original text, but that several other glossators then went through parts or all of the manuscript adding their thoughts, and in this case those seem to have been particularly interested in comparing pagan and Christian religious practices. Mostly this was fairly neutral, using the Romans as an anthropological light on the Christianity of the manuscript’s era although at one point, apparently, a glossator uses a sermon of Saint Augustine which we no longer have to critique Virgil. And, on the reverse of folio 151, in Æneid Book VII, a character by the name of Clausus is explained with the words, “Sicut de magno Karolo data est comparatio: Nam adeo uultuosus erat ut non expediret interrogari ab eo qui eum numque viderat quis Karolus esset.” A very rough translation of that might be, “Comparison may justly be made to Charles the Great: for he was so terrible of aspect that there was no need for anyone who had ever seen him to ask which one was Charles.” This is interesting not least because it seems to be based on something that Charlemagne’s second biographer, Notker the Stammerer, also bases a story on, in which a Frankish exile in beseiged Pavia repeatedly tells the King of the Lombards that he will know when he sees Charlemagne, but it’s probably also the earliest reference to Charlemagne as ‘Charles the Great’.5 As David said, he was epic already…

Cover of Christopher Lee's Charlemagne: by the sword and the cross

Perhaps, however, not yet this epic. Rest in peace, Mr Lee

This is a unique and early usage of Charlemagne’s later byname, in a rather out-of-the-way place, so in questions the topic that mainly concerned people was who it was that thought this and how many people would ever have noticed. Was this a teaching text, which many a student would have worked with, or someone’s private annotated version? Was this a private thought or a schoolroom lesson? It is, after all, only one of several sets of glosses, as you can see above, so it is at least partly a question of which glossator preceded which. At the time of address, even David’s master palæography could not determine that, and with several scribes clearly working at around the same time in the same place it would probably only be guesswork if anyone were to attempt it. At least, however, the manuscript shows how for its users Virgil was not just a dead pagan poet, but a source of insight into their own, Christian, times worth going back to again and again.


1. Still best approached, I think, via Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994); for wrangles over the term Renaissance here see John J. Contreni, “The Carolingian Renaissance” in Warren Treadgold (ed.), Renaissances before the Renaissance: cultural revivals of late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Stanford 1984), pp. 59-74.

2. I was lately reading Apuleius while off-air, in fact, in the rather ancient Penguin translation, Lucius Apuleius, The Transformations of Lucius, otherwise known as The Golden Ass, transl. Robert Graves (Harmondsworth 1950) anyway; if you know it you’ll likely agree that refinement and high culture are not its main subjects. As for Jerome, his fear of being too Ciceronian resulted in visions of angels beating him up for it, which is probably more severe than most!

3. On education and its methods the entry point is still Pierre Riché, Education and culture in the Barbarian West, sixth through eighth centuries, transl. John J. Contreni (Philadelphia 1976); see also Contreni, “The Pursuit of Knowledge in Carolingian Europe” in Richard E. Sullivan (ed.), The Gentle Voices of Teachers: aspects of learning in the Carolingian age (Columbus 1995), pp. 106-141.

4. See Don Fowler, “The Virgil Commentary of Servius” in Charles Martindale (ed.), The Cambridge Comnpanion to Virgil (Cambridge 1997), pp. 73-78, doi: 10.1017/CCOL0521495393.005.

5. Notker, Gesta Karoli, transl. of course in David Ganz (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2008), pp. 45-116, II.17.

Seminar CCII: the modern decline of Charlemagne

My progress through my ridiculous seminar report backlog now picks up in the summer of this year with none other than old acquaintance and collaborator Charles West, who on 6th May 2014 found himself in Birmingham addressing a new seminar of the Institute of German Studies, the Not the First World War Centenary Seminar, which was concentrating on alternative anniversaries to the one that we aren’t allowed to miss this year. Therefore Charles was brought in to address us on the topic, “Charlemagne and the Future of the European Past”. Now, as it happens, of recent years Charles has ventured onto the Internet himself along with a cadre of colleagues from Sheffield who contribute to their History Matters blog, which I recommend, and thus it is that you don’t have to take my word for it what Charles thinks about this issue, because he had already written something about it here. So I’ll be brief here and refer you over there if you want to debate things.

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

The short and essential pitch of what Charles had to say is that Europe used to be a lot more fussed about Charlemagne as a figure of importance than it has now become. Whereas he was the point of origin for the Holy Roman Empire and the man whose achievement in bringing a swathe of Occidental territory under one rule both Napoleon and Hitler expressed an intent to beat, and even after the war still the figurehead of various prizes and speeches intended to foster European unity, this has fallen off of late. In this, the 12th centenary of his death, which has sparked a number of exhibitions and celebrations around the Continent, that at Aachen was expecting only a third as many people as attended a similar exhibition at Paderborn in 1999 (and I’ve no idea how many it in fact got).

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen, Karlder Grosse: Macht, Kunst, Schätze

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen

Charles put this down to two related things: in the first place, the early European Union was surprisingly close in extent to the territories ruled by Charlemagne (including the British Isles obviously attached but clinging to ideas of sovereignty anyway); Spain, Portugal and Greece kind of sneaked in, Scandinavia in general has some explaining to do but the lines east and south were otherwise close, whereas now that we count Eastern Europe in full and the Baltic States and are dithering over Turkey, the old model no longer fits even slightly. This larger Europe also has no collective history together: this group of countries have never been a unit, even Rome never ruled them all, so appeals to our great common history and its unifying figureheads (of whom, after all, there are few enough if that’s your aim) cease to have anything like as much traction. The whole paper thus served as another reminder that whatever we think we’re doing as historians, our work is put to use by people with political agendas that determine why people are interested, and when those agendas don’t need our work they instead put it out to grass. Charles concluded that the best way we can proceed is to tell the story we have and let it find its own audience, but of course we would also usually like it to find financial support and, well, there has ever been the rub…

Carolingian things afoot in Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

May I just break the backlog-filling for a second to bring your attention to two things happening in Cambridge relating to no-one less than Charles the Great, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, Patrician of the Romans and finally Holy Roman Emperor, already? You know the one. The first of these, because it’s already happening, though I’ve yet to see it, is an exhibition at my old place of work, the Fitzwilliam Museum, called Building an Empire: Money, trade and power in the age of Charlemagne. As you can see from that web-page, “A selection of the finest medieval coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection (Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Byzantine and Islamic) will be on show to illustrate the complex political, economic and cultural ties of the period.” The Fitzwilliam has a really pretty good selection of such things, so it should be worth a look. Furthermore, if you were to go over the weekend of the 4th-6th July, you could combine it with this:

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the programme of the conference “The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours”, 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

“While recent scholarship has done much to illuminate early medieval frontiers, the relationship between the Carolingian frontier and its neighbouring societies has yet to be the focus of sustained, comparative discussion. This conference aims to initiate a dialogue between scholars of the Carolingian frontier and those of the societies it bordered, and in so doing to reach a better understanding of the nature and extent of contacts in frontier regions and the various manners in which these contacts – not to mention frontier regions themselves – were conceptualized. Moreover, it will explore the interplay between various types of contact – whether military, political, economic, social, or religious – and the various ways in which these contacts could underpin, or undermine, existing relationships, both between the local societies themselves and between political centres.”

So it says here. Now, this is obviously pretty close to my interests, and so it may not surprise you completely that I am in fact speaking at it, with the title, “‘Completely detached from the kingdom of the Franks’? Political identity in Catalonia in the very late Carolingian era”. But that’s very first thing on Saturday morning, I shan’t be offended if you miss it. Do, however, come for the other speakers, who include people not just from far abroad (Granada, Madrid, Lyon, Warsaw, Prague, Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Berkeley) but also Oxford, would you believe, as well as a clutch of local stars, including the organisers, Fraser McNair, Ingrid Rembold and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (and maybe others?), who are bright sparks all and keen to get the word out to people. I was convinced to come by, well, mainly my own certainty that I needed to be in on something like this but also because also presenting is Eduardo Manzano Moreno, whose fault my work partly is, and I want to hear what he has to say. But it all looks very good, and so if you’re interested, as the programme says, “Places are limited! Please return a completed registration form with payment early to avoid disappointment.”

Oh, and by the way, fittingly enough, this is post no. 800 on the blog. I did not do this deliberately…

Leeds 2012 Report 1

I have to say that I wonder exactly what the point of writing up blog on the International Medieval Congress at Leeds of 2012, on the very day that early registration closes for the 2013 one. I will have to find some way to strike a medium between giving a bald itinerary of papers seen I can barely remember or else reconstructing the whole thing at length from my notes. But the only way to find out what transpires is to try, so here goes.

Entrance to Bodington Hall, University of Leeds, adorned with banner for the 2012 International Medieval Congress

The soon-to-be-late and lamented Bodington Hall, entrance thereto

As is by now traditional, I got through breakfast slightly too late to make it to the main room in which the keynote lectures were held and had the weird experience of arriving on the already-full video relay room to see no-one there I knew, which takes some doing at Leeds usually. Luckily this was a misleading omen. The actual lectures, meanwhile, were more or less perceptible if slightly blue-tinged on the video, and were as follows.

1. Keynote Lectures 2012

  • Sverre Bagge, “Changing the Rules of the Game: when did regicide go out of fashion and why?”
    As an early medievalist, I had not realised that no European king was killed by his successor or replacements between 1282 and 1792. That does seem to want some explanation, and Professor Bagge made dynastic legitimacy a part of it, a factor of stability, but other explanations were harder to come by, and there was some difficulty with the sovereign paradox, the problem that the king makes the law and is thereby able to choose if it applies to him.1 Certainly, there is something special about kingship, but why it should only have acquired full force then was not really resolved.
  • Nicole Bériou, “Just Follow Christ and the Gospels? Monastic Rules and Christian Rules in the 13th Century”
    This lecture opened up for us a twelfth-century debate about the worth of monastic rules; in an era when individual concern for one’s own salvation could be put before other’s views of what your soul required for its health, some put the view that the Gospels were the only ‘rule’ that counted. This was not how monastic life had traditionally been envisaged, of course, indeed it rather questioned the necessity or utility of that life for oneself, and such theorists thus started seeing other vocations as monk-like, and society itself as the monastery, which then meant that things like marriage could be seen as requiring Rules too! None of this was ever what you’d call widespread, as we were told it, but it’s interesting to see such thinking in the high era of papal monarchy, which could be imagined as more or less stamping down such autonomous theologising.

Then after that, and after coffee, it was charter time.

133. Nulli… si quis & Co.: sanctiones, corroborationes and penal forms in medieval charters

The number of people who can get excited about a whole session on what set of repeated words scribes used to threaten those who infringed on transactions is probably limited, but no-one would be fooled that I am not among them, and indeed I was not the only one here to hear these:

  • Mark Mersiowsky, “Rules in the document: Carolingian corroborations”
    Few people have seen as many early medieval charters as Professor Mersiowsky, in fact I might go so far as to guess that no-one has, and that means he’s seen a lot of charter issuers signing off by way of confirmation. He took us through the earliest Carolingian monarchs’ chosen ways of doing this, largely with crosses or monograms that he thought were in fact done in the monarchs’ own hands until the time of Charles the Bald (840-877) but whose accompanying phrases suggest older referents, perhaps Byzantine or late Roman. The transition from that is the great gap in the evidence that swallows all conjectures, of course, but it was interesting to see rules being set by these kings of correctio in still another way.
  • Sébastien Barret, “The sanctiones of the Cluniac charters of the 10th-11th centuries”
    Sébastien looked for rules slightly further up his documents, in the penalty clauses already mentioned of the charters of St-Pierre de Cluny in Burgundy, now of course searchable, and found that certain words almost only appear in those clauses, such as, “componat“, ‘let him compensate with’, and indeed more surprisingly “Si quis…”, ‘If anyone…’, though this was something I would also shortly find in my own work, I have to say.2 It was not uniform practice in these clauses: innovation and especially elaboration was possible, even if exact grammar and sense were not, always. Nonetheless, something had to do this job recognisably in these documents, and we may here be crossing the difference between what computers can recognise and what the people of the time could.
  • Arnold Otto, “Nulli… Si Quis and their Copycats: penal forms in later medieval charters”
    The trouble with later medieval charters is that the vernaculars get in and changes everything, so Dr Otto was sensible and went for numbers instead, looking the size of penalties in the penalty clauses of Emperor Charles IV. These, again, varied within fairly regular patterns; though their effect was more deterrent than real, even for a king like Charles, that deterrent was still worth ramping up on special occasions it seems!
  • In questions there was much asked about how many stages these documents were written in and whether penalties were ever carried out, but my notes don’t suggest any patterns emerged from that, not least because we probably only spoke up if we thought we had a difference to add. But then it was lunch and a canter across to Weetwood Hall for some archaeology.

204. Rules for Early Medieval Grave-Goods? Implications for the World of the Living from the World of the Dead

    Set phrases in documents, dead bodies, let no-one say I don’t know where the fun is in medieval studies… This session was introduced by Roland Steinacher, who wanted to remind us all that the Roman Emperor Theodosius I actually passed law allowing the recovery of treasure from graves for the benefit of the state, and then we moved on to the papers.

  • Marion Sorg, “Are Brooches Personal Possessions of the Deceased?: An Empiric Investigation Based on Analyzing Age-Relatedness of Brooches”
    This was a question about an assumption, one that could be more general than just with brooches, that the goods in a grave belonged to the deceased. With brooches in the early Middle Ages it’s even a specific assumption that a woman would own a set of brooches that were almost her identity kit, and keep them all her life, which if it were true would mean that they had an age similar to that of the skeletons with which they are found. Enter the evidence, gathered from 27 cemeteries in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, where only about 11·5% of individuals had brooches anyway, but where all age groups could have new brooches but worn brooches were certainly most commonly found with older individuals. This provoked Dr Sorg to wonder whether there might be several stages of a woman’s life where she would acquire such brooches, but I have to say that to me the figures she was presenting seemed to show more or less the same levels of wear in all age groups, so that these intervals would be suspiciously evenly spaced at about 20 years. I asked if we might be looking at object lifespans rather than people’s, I must have been reading something… There’s more work needed to identify what’s active here, I think.
  • Mirjam Kars, “Invisible Rules: the study of grave goods in the context of privately organized intergenerational transmission in families”
    What would mess up such paradigms of course is heirlooms, goods being passed to new owners, and that was the subject of this paper. Women in early medieval cemeteries seem to be buried with fewer goods as they age, suggesting a dispersal of their early kit to younger relatives or friends, which Dr Kars linked with group identification signification. She found very little that wouldn’t be circulated, which itself was interesting given what such analyses show in other cultures; her theory was coming from gift exchange stuff but I wonder now what commodities theory would do for her view.3
  • Stephanie Zintl, “Things to be Taken from the Dead: a case study on reopened graves”
    This paper was about grave-robbing, except that as the speaker said, that’s how we might see it but it’s not clear that the early medieval populations of Francia or Kent did, because it was pretty widespread. She asserted that half of the 600 graves she’d checked had at some point before excavation been reopened, early on as she figured, although this turned out to be on the basis of the very few with several eras of goods in, what is not what you’d call a perfect measure. That half was, however, substantially the ones containing goods, not those without, suggesting firstly that robbery was not the motive and secondly that those opening them could tell which was which still, implying some kind of marker above the surface. The reburiers must have firstly wanted to change the graves somehow and secondly presumably have known that the same would likely happen to theirs. This provoked a lot of discussion and you can see why, a very interesting set of questions despite the methodological difficulties.

325. Post Mortem Problems: Saints, Sinners, and Popular Piety

    Having done murder, confinement, threats and burial what could be left but zombies? I have a space to fill, after all.4

  • Stephen Gordon, “Practical Innovation, Local Belief, and the Containment of the Troublesome Dead”
    This was a study of some of the many English stories about dead bodies found walking, which the speaker suggested might get more common once the idea of Purgatory lengthened the chronology of death rather. Maybe so, but it’s certainly a common thing before that too, even when we have so few sources!5
  • Brian Reynolds, “Dodging Damnation: The Virgin’s Advocacy in Medieval Theology and Popular Piety”
    This paper looked at the development of the idea that Mary will basically be calming Jesus down at the Last Judgement and urging forgiveness of those who appealed to her in life. This placed the real action 1200-1500, but did make the point, probably widely realised, that because Mary was supposedly assumed into Heaven, there are no relics of her body, meaning that her cult is easier to diffuse widely, which I suppose is true.
  • Isabel Moreira, “Hector of Marseilles is Purged: political rehabilitation and guilt by association in the 7th-century Passion of Leudegar of Autun
    If you were a churchman of seventh-century France, as we’ve observed here indeed, you were probably deeply involved in government; escape from worldly cares was basically impossible, and this means that those who would write lives of saints in that era had to be imaginative about their interactions with laymen of less exalted characters. The patrician Hector of Marseilles was such a layman, a rebel against the king with whom St Leudegar got mixed up, and this paper argued that Leudegar’s biographer tried to get round this by giving him a martyr’s death that should have purged any sin, with imagery of being tested in the fire like gold, and so on, an idea that might possibly have been applied to others of the Merovingian-era nobility who lived messy lives with horrible ends.

So that was the first day of Leeds 2012 for me, and that seems worth the writing, both for me and hopefully for you; I guess I’ll do the rest in their turn…

N. B.: alternative coverage of some of these sessions by Magistra et Mater also exists


1. Addressed repeatedly by Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), pp. 7, 34, 59, 73, 79-80 & 83, inter alia, all more or less in the same words, but it’s worth reading one of the occurrences.

2. J. Jarrett, “Comparing the earliest documentary culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in J. Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Brepols forthcoming), pp. 000-00.

3. That largely because since then I finally read Arjan Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), which is really interesting and will generate a future blog post.

4. The most relevant reflection of that place’s nature being John Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine Karkov, Janet Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), pp. 539-560. Why have I never thought before about the significance of putting a piece about the unquiet dead in a memorial volume? I’m pretty sure John didn’t mean any of the things that might be implied by that…

5. Much of the early material gathered either in Blair, “Dangerous Dead”, or Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45.