Tag Archives: Charlemagne

Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), part 1

Medieval depiction of the city of Genoa

Masthead image from the conference website, a medieval depiction of Genoa whose source I can’t track down

We’re back into term and there’s even less time available for blogging than usual, but there is a huge backlog still, and so I suppose it behoves me to slog onwards. I went to a lot of conferences the summer before last, and it’s the, er, fourth of them that’s up next, which was the 2015 meeting of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, held at the University of Lincoln over the 13th to 15th of July. The title of the conference was Law, Custom and Ritual in the Medieval Mediterranean. Despite this, I hadn’t straight away wanted to go, mainly because it fell straight after the International Medieval Congress and I rightly expected to be exhausted, but Lincoln is nice and the conference programme was also full of people from Spain I wanted to meet or be met by. Also, in retrospect, since of the fifty-four papers five, at a stretch, mentioned Catalonia, and one of those only Catalunya Nova, I almost had to speak just to show the flag… So I was there, and this was a good decision.

West front of Lincoln Cathedral

The cathedral is at least five good reasons to go to Lincoln, but I seem not to have taken a camera with me, so you’ll have to make do with this one by Anthony Shreeve, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We began at a civilised hour on the 13th, which is to say after lunch, and then I made what will immediately seem an obvious decision for those who know me, which was to go and hear Wendy Davies. The session broke down like this.

Judicial Practices in Early Medieval Northwestern Iberia (1)

  • Wendy Davies, “Partial (? and Impartial) Records of Judicial Practice in Northern Iberia pre-1000”
  • Isabel Alfonso, José M. Andrade and André Evangelista Marques, “Recording Judicial Information: a comparative approach”
  • Wendy set up a distinction between full records of court proceedings, which in her tenth-century north-western area as in my tenth-century north-eastern one tend to be full-size formal records redacted by the winners with an often extensive narrative explaining how the winner was right (sometimes not so extensive, but…) and, on the other hand, informal notes of process which we find, when we look, quoted in other texts or jotted in the margins or on the dorses of our more formal charters, less constructed but sometimes more formulaic, sometimes being verbatim copies of oaths, agreements to come to a further hearing and so on. I seem to have asserted, as per usual, that we could find this in Catalonia too, but looking back now (at a point when I am running unusually dull of brain, I should admit) I struggle to think of some and it sounds as if Wendy has more. All good reasons to read her new book, anyway!1

    A marriage pact of 951 witnessed by the newly-succeded King Ordoño II in 951, Madrid, Archivo Historical Nacional, Carp. 1430 N.16

    This is not a charter of the right sort, but it is at least a charter from the right monastery, Celanova, and the right period, being a marriage pact of 951 witnessed by the newly-succeded King Ordoño II in 951, Madrid, Archivo Historical Nacional, Carp. 1430 N.16. and what a charter it is!

    The second paper I was keen on seeing just because I have used José Andrade’s work, had occasional second-hand encouragement from him and wanted to meet the man, and he and his colleagues turned out to be presenting a new database, which should now be live though I can’t find it I’m afraid, and this had meant them having to think very hard about categories (which is, of course, one of the problems with that otherwise noble endeavour). They wound up with nine categories of which one was ‘mixed records’, which is how that usually works; it turns out that what people did doesn’t fit what we want to see… The database, anyway, includes the documents from the monastery of Sahagún as was and the much smaller but in some ways more interesting one of Otero de las Dueñas; Otero’s sample is much smaller (including physically) but far more of their records are judicial, and show a generally lower social level of action, local courts with decisions made by local worthies whereas Sahagún increasingly went to the king for its resolutions. Other components of the sample are the monasteries of Samos and Celanova, where the situation is partly inverse in as much as royally-founded Samos has much less information for us. Again, however, the smaller house preserved a greater proportion of lawsuits, including ones where they lost. The final components are the gathered samples from what is now Portugal, handled by André Evangelista, who compared the monasteries of Moreira and Guimaraes to a very similar effect: Guimaraes has less stuff but 40% of it is judicial records, all admittedly after the event, formal records as Wendy would have it. A short conclusion might be: if as a monastery you didn’t have wealth, you held power more aggressively.2

Interior view of the cloister at the Pousada Mosteiro de Guimaraes

The current state of the monastery of Guimaraes, which is to say, a rather expensive hotel

In discussion, however, the speakers were all keen to stress that the situation they had depicted changed a great deal in the eleventh century, not least because of King Alfonso VI. Here again, I feel sympathy; there is a divide between the societies I study and those of 1100 onwards that is, I think, why I find some kind of feudal transformation narrative compelling even as I disbelieve it in detail. People did things differently thereafter… Anyway, then after coffee from the mundane to the eternal, in subject matter at least.

Orthodoxy and Deviance

  • Elena Nonveiller, “‘Paganism’ in the 7th Century in Byzantium: the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion that defined Orthodoxy”
  • Laura Carlson, “Written & Oral Forms of Public Penitence during the Adoptionist Controversy”
  • Ms Nonveiller gave us a close analysis of the Council of Trullo of 692, in which Emperor Justinian II (of whom we have heard) tried to do a general regulation of belief that included, among other things, measures against Judaism and pagan practices. The word used for pagan in the council acts (which never got actually cited, so I can’t tell you where to find them) is apparently ‘hellenikos’, i. e. Classical Greek, but many of the usages they sought to ban were not Classical as far as we can tell, things like leaping over a fire at your door for the new year. Ms Nonveiler sought to reimpose the separation of origins that syncretism had, for her, by this time erased, and suggested that this custom was probably Jewish or Slavic; I saw no reason why it shouldn’t be local to wherever the relevant churchmen had found it, myself, and in general thought that tracking this stuff through texts was unlikely to relate much to what the people doing it actually thought. Ironically perhaps, Ms Nonveiller closed by noting that many of these provisions had to be repeated in the next council, and so were perhaps too theoretical to affect practice! But, warned by Carolingian precedent, I asked whether much of the council’s condemnations were themselves repeated from earlier texts, and of course it turned out that many of them were. A Western perspective would probably see this much less as active legislation and much more as an imperial performance of orthodoxy, speaking out against well-recognised bad things whether they were still happening since their first condemnation three centuries before or not, and I’m not sure that Westerner would be wrong.3

    Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 385, fo. 134r

    The beginning of the profession of faith of Bishop Felix of Urgell, in Reims, Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 385, fo. 134r

    Laura, meanwhile, had found in a single Reims manuscript apparently (of course, constructed for Archbishop Hincmar) a copy of Bishop Felix of Urgell’s final profession of faith.4 For those who don’t know him, Felix had been both the Carolingians’ main bishop in Catalonia when they took it over and, as they saw it, a dangerous heretic, being part of the Adoptionist movement that had grown up in the peninsular Church. He was repeatedly made to disavow this belief but somehow remained in office with it until 799, which is the date of this letter. And it is a letter, to his canons (who are listed, very exciting for me), assuming the state of a penitent and thus demitting his office. Laura proposed that this was effectively a public penance by letter, making it known through to all that he was defeated and that he admitted Adoptionism was wrong, effectively pouring poison into his network but also, as I argued in discussion, opening the way for a Carolingian-approved election at Urgell. By contrast, his previous two confessions could have been considered ‘private’, a compromise intended to allow him to stay in office as the Carolingians’ agent. In 799 that was apparently decided insufficient and he was made to take this step of self-removal, but as Laura also pointed out, since the Carolingians were then reforming the practice of penance, by 800 it would have been impossible.5 Nonetheless, the situation and the fact that Felix quotes the profession of faith of none other than Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, as condemned before Emperor Theodosius II at Ephesus in 431, made this council of 799 a kind of mirror of that one in which Charlemagne got to play Theodosius ending the divisive heresy in his lands. Again, I wonder how much Felix’s real practices mattered here against the possibility of the soon-to-be-imperial performance of orthodoxy…

    Alfonso X of Castile and his court, as shown in the 12th-century Libro de los Juegos

    Alfonso X of Castile and his court, as shown in the 12th-century Libro de los Juegos; from Wikimedia Commons

    Finally that day, we were treated to a keynote address by Professor Simon Doubleday, entitled “Illegitimate Concerns”. This was a lecture about bastardy, with specific reference to King Alfonso X of Castile, the Wise. Although his father Fernando I reportedly advised him to remain chaste, this seems to be something Alfonso had trouble with; as well as being betrothed to Yolanda, daughter of King Jaume of Aragón in 1246, marrying her in 1248 and starting to have children soon after, he was by then already father of one Beatriz by a long-term partner. At the point of Alfonso and Yolanda’s marriage, therefore, poor Beatriz, aged 8, was shipped off to Portugal to marry King Afonso III, despite him already being married. It’s complicated, as they say. But the point of the lecture lay in the relationship that King Alfonso and Beatriz maintained, especially after the coup that temporarily deposed him, during which time she came to live with him (although one may suspect that the 300 troops she apparently brought with her gladdened the king’s heart nearly as much). It doesn’t seem to have been a problem for the king to recognise that tie, nurture it with gifts of lands along the Portuguese border or exploit it in time of trouble, even though the law, to which of course Alfonso added, was pretty clear that children born out of wedlock had no real rights in the face of those legitimately born. Professor Doubleday wondered, therefore, where we’d lost this relative generosity to the illegitimate, and with those musings we wound up the day and headed for the wine reception, with brains pleasantly full.


    1. You didn’t know Wendy had a new book out? She does, and it is W. Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (London 2016). I need to read it before the end of term somehow, too…

    2. This must also be cyclical, and relate to Jinty Nelson’s long-ago point about how it takes time for monasteries to grow roots in the community, so they start by buying lands and only then go on to receiving donations and fighting people for their rights; see Janet L. Nelson, “Women and the Word in the Earlier Middle Ages” in W. J. Sheils & Diana Wood (edd.), Women in the Church: papers read at the 1989 summer meeting and the 1990 winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, Studies in Church History Vol. 27 (Oxford 1990), pp. 53-78, and indeed for early medieval Iberia Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the Nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2005 for 2003), pp. 229-258.

    3. That Westerner would only have had to read Patrick Wormald, “Lex scripta and Verbum regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in Peter Sawyer & Ian N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105-138, but let’s remember how long it took me to do so I suppose…

    4. As in the caption above, this is Reims, Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 385, fos 134r-138r and followed by a letter of his fos 138r-140r. If you care about such things, Archbishop Hincmar of Reims signed the bottom of fo. 136r…

    5. See Rob Meens, “The Frequency and Nature of Early Medieval Penance” in Peter Biller & A. J. Minnis (edd.), Handling Sin: Confession in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge 1998), pp. 35-61, and on the controversy over Felix and his beliefs, John C. Cavadini, The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 785-820 (Philadelphia 1993), a book I wish Pennsylvania University Press would reprint as there is so little else in English on this and it’s really expensive to get now.

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…