Tag Archives: Charlemagne

Seminar CCXLVI: controversies in studying Carolingian coinage

As promised, the Bank Holiday bonus blog post is also about coins. I promise you only very minimal quantities of numismatics in the next post, but for now we’re still in my whirl of monetary study at the beginning of 2017. On 22nd February of that year, I did something that was already becoming a rarity, which was to head down to London to hear someone speak at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research, and as previously mentioned that someone was the Reverend Dr Simon Coupland and his topic was “New Light from Carolingian Coinage”, and this bears on enough things I care about that I wanted to write it up separately in old style.

Obverse of a silver portrait denier of Charlemagne, probably struck at Aachen between 813 and 814, now in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, image from Wikimedia Commons

Here at least is a Charlemagne denier I haven’t pictured before, in the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Cabinet des Médailles, image by PHGCOM – own work by uploader, photographed at Cabinet des Médailles, Paris, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reason there is new light to be shone, it turned out, is because the stuff keeps being discovered. Although the Carolingian coinage is still probably smaller in survival than its Merovingian predecessor, and there are still therefore questions about its actual use to settle—we’ll come back to that—the hoards corpus has trebled in size since Dr Coupland began his study of the subject, and weird and wonderful groupings keep turning up, especially in the border areas of the Empire where foreign coin didn’t get reminted at entry. Dr Coupland also has the kind of contacts that means he hears about the single finds that Continental antiquities laws tend otherwise to prevent coming to light. Who knows what has come up even while I haven’t been writing this paper up, indeed?1 So there were a number of big-ticket declarations he felt he could now make, and then some curiosities we have still to resolve.

Among the big-ticket items were things like:

  1. Charlemagne’s monogram coinage is found further from its mints than any preceding Carolingian coinage; whatever it is was that joined up his empire, it meant that his late money travelled further than the early stuff.2
  2. His son Louis the Pious, however, seems to have minted more coin per year than any Carolingian ruler before or after him; the latter fact was because the civil war between his sons seriously damaged the production and circulation of the currency and Charles the Bald’s reset of his coinage in 864 did not fully repair the situation even in the West (though if it had, we might conceivably not know, since coins from after that point are very hard to date).
  3. On the other side of the war of the Carolingian brothers, Emperor Lothar I seems to have lost control of his coinage somewhat: there seem to be a lot of Viking imitations, which may be because he had farmed out his biggest mint, Dorestad in Frisia, to a Viking warlord called Rorik and apparently Rorik’s moneyers didn’t much care what Lothar’s name was. This, however, raises the question whether the Frisian imitations of gold solidi of Louis the Pious are also Viking occupation productions, which against this background suddenly seems likely…3
Anglo-Frisian imitation of a gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious found in Aldingbourn area, Sussex, UK, Portable Antiquities Scheme SUSS-2A93DC

Viking-made? An imitation of a gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious found in Aldingbourn area , Sussex, UK, 5th May 2019, Portable Antiquities Scheme SUSS-2A93DC, image licensed under CC-BY.

On the scale of smaller curiosities, we had observations like this:

  1. We now know that King Pepin III struck a very small portrait coinage, so that’s pretty much every mainline Carolingian with one now.
  2. On the same subject, we now have 47 examples of Charlemagne’s portrait coinage, and the persistently small number of them against the background of his wider coinage makes the question of what they were for still harder to answer, not least because we now have 362 of Louis the Pious’s; it seems clearer that the son of Charlemagne was keener on circulating his imperial image, so what was Charlemagne doing?4
  3. Hoards from around Dorestad continue to indicate the place’s major rôle as a clearing house for international economic contact even before the Vikings were running it, with not just now five hoards of Pepin III and quite a mixture of other Carolingiana but also now a small hoard of King Eanred of Northumbria…5
  4. Despite that, coins from Venice, which was in some ways outside the actual Empire, actually form as large a part of the single finds distribution as do coins from supposed no. 1 port Dorestad, so the high level of finds recovery from the Netherlands may be bending our picture somewhat.
  5. Two hoards from near the major Carolingian mint of Melle, meanwhile, add considerably to the confusion of what was going on in Aquitaine while it was contested between King Charles the Bald and King Pepin II of Aquitaine, as we now have one hoard each of coins in the name of Charles but with Pepin’s monogram (Dr Coupland’s ‘Poitou-Charente 2014’) and one of coins in the name of Pepin but with Charles’s monogram.6 Is it possible some kind of joint rule is reflected here, or was it just blundering, or mint officials trying to play it safe? Why did they have dies of both to mix up? And so on…
  6. Lastly, of many other snippets I could mention, a hoard of 2000 Temple-type coins of Lothar I from Tzimmingen gives us a robust die sample for the coinage and suggests that, if one accepts the infamous Metcalf multiplier of 10,000 coins usually struck per die, that this would have been a coinage of around 4,000,000 pieces.7 But of course, we should not accept the infamous Metcalf multiplier8

You may get the impression that this paper was substantially composed of numismatic gossip, and you wouldn’t be all wrong about that, but behind all this, especially when one starts dealing with numbers like that, are bigger questions. Long ago now Michael Hendy argued that whereas Roman coinage had been primarily intended for tax and was run in the state interest rather than out of any concern for commerce, something in which he has been much disputed since, by the Carolingian era enabling trade was a primary concern of coin-issuing powers, not least because they didn’t really use coin for anything else, since the imperial tax system was gone and they raised troops on obligations relating to land, not by paying them wages.9 We might, now, have enough additional respect for the Carolingians’ estate management and desire to transport wealth in durable forms around their empire to suspect that they did, in fact, have at least some governmental uses for coin, and Hendy would probably not have denied that, but when we’ve got figures like these, and coins moving so far before then getting lost, as Metcalf managed to argue for the early Anglo-Saxon coinages, it seems like trade must be the bigger part of the answer. That raises its own questions about whether this relatively high-value silver coinage was actually very generally available or whether it was, effectively, a tool of professionals. That goes double when one factors in professional soldiery or banditry that might explain hoards in Viking territories, I suppose, but Dr Coupland would argue for a trading factor there too, and I think Mark Blackburn would have agreed with him.10

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious struck at Venice in 819-822, CNG Coins 407389

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious struck at Venice in 819-822, CNG Coins 407389, ex Coin Galleries sale, 14 November 2000, lot 576

As Rory Naismith raised in questions, the place that doesn’t fit into this picture as one would expect is Italy, part of the Carolingian realms at least down to Rome and sometimes further from 774. While it’s probably not ideal metal detector territory for much of its surface, Italy is nevertheless pretty thoroughly archaeologically surveyed and dug, and yet, as Alessia Rovelli has repeatedly argued, the finds of coins from the Carolingian era are way fewer than from the Roman, Byzantine and even Lombard eras before it.11 She has therefore concluded that the Carolingians didn’t really strike much coin in Italy, and yet beyond the Alps Venice and Milan are major parts of the sample. If those mints were primarily striking for what turned out to be export, it’s hard to argue that this was a coinage for the market, when Italy’s concentration of cities even then should have provided a much more urgent market context than the other side of the Alps. In this respect, at least, this coinage looks like a tax one, a point made on this occasion by Caroline Goodson, in which case why does it look like a trading one inside Frankish territories? For Dr Coupland this was probably something do with the finding circumstances, but an alternative might be that Italy was something of a colonised territory under the Carolingians, from which they extracted wealth that was really only being spent in the heartland, whereafter it spread more normally. But what was Italy doing for money in its own markets if that was so? There is a bigger answer needed here if it is to contain all this evidence, but of course, one has to know what the evidence is. Certainly, the audience of this paper had to ask their questions differently by the end of it from how they would have at the beginning, such was the new evidence presented. As you can tell, I am still thinking with it now, and now, after much delay, so can you!


1. Dr Coupland has been trying to keep track of this for a while: see Simon Coupland, “A Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards 751-987” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 171 (London 2011), pp. 203–256, on JSTOR here; idem, “A Supplement to the Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards, 751-987”, ibid. Vol. 174 (London 2014), pp. 213–222, on JSTOR here; idem, “Seven Recent Carolingian Hoards”, ibid. pp. 317–332, on JSTOR here; idem, “A Hoard of Charles the Bald (840-77) and Pippin II (845-8)”, ibid. Vol. 175 (London 2015), pp. 273–284, and Simon Coupland and Jens Christian Moesgaard, “Carolingian Hoards”, ibid., pp. 267–272, are just the ones I easily have reference to; I suspect there are more…

2. See now Simon Coupland, “The Formation of a European Identity: Revisiting Charlemagne’s Coinage” in Elina Screen and Charles West (eds), Writing the Early Medieval West: studies in honour of Rosamond McKitterick (Cambridge 2018), pp. 213–229.

3. See Simon Coupland, “Recent Finds of Imitation Gold Solidi in the Netherlands” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (London 2016), pp. 261–269.

4. Simon Coupland, “The Portrait Coinage of Charlemagne” in Rory Naismith, Martin Allen and Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: Studies in Memory of Mark Blackburn (Farnham 2014), pp. 145–156.

5. For a view predating these recent finds, see Simon Coupland, “Boom and Bust at 9th-century Dorestad” in Annemarieke Willemsen and H. Kik (edd.), Dorestad in an International Framework: New Research on Centres of Trade and Coinage in Carolingian Times (Turnhout 2010), pp. 95–103.

6. This is presumably that covered in Coupland, “A Hoard of Charles the Bald (840-77) and Pippin II (845-8)”, and I guess the other one is in either idem, “A Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards” or idem, “A Supplement to the Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards”.

7. Metcalf in D. M. Metcalf, “How Large was the Anglo-Saxon Currency?” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 18 (London 1965), pp. 475-482, on JSTOR here, but for a statistical sanity check of the methods (which basically aren’t sane) see Warren W. Esty, “Estimation of the Size of a Coinage: a Survey and Comparison of Methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, on JSTOR here.

8. See for a final word on this, at least as it should have been, S. E. Buttrey and T. V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production, Again” in American Journal of Numismatics Vol. 9 (Washington DC 1997), pp. 113–135.

9. Michael F. Hendy, “From Public to Private: The Western Barbarian Coinages as a Mirror of the Disintegration of Late Roman State Structures” in Viator Vol. 19 (Turnhout 1988), pp. 29–78, DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.2.301364.

10. Obviously there are the important methodological cautions of Philip Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123–140, on JSTOR here, which I do love to cite still, but against it in this context see D. M. Metcalf, “Viking-Age Numismatics 4: The Currency of German and Anglo-Saxon Coins in the Northern Lands” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 148 (London 1998), pp. 345–371, on JSTOR here, and idem, “English Money, Foreign Money: The Circulation of Tremisses and Sceattas in the East Midlands, and the Monetary Role of ‘Productive Sites'” in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 2: New Perspectives (Woodbridge 2011), pp. 15–48.

11. Alessia Rovelli, “Coins and Trade in Early Medieval Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 17 (Oxford 2009), pp. 45–76.

Seminar CCXLIII: creating the law under Charlemagne

Pickets outside the University of Leeds on 26th February 2020

Pickets outside the University of Leeds today

It’s back to work for the UK’s academics tomorrow, in what for me will be one very frantic day of teaching followed by another one of marking, but then, unless some substantial progress is made in negotiations, we’re back on strike again on Monday. There is therefore time now, but maybe not later, for me to deliver on the first of the posts I just promised, by reactivating a long-dormant series with a post about a visit to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, like I used to do so much long ago. On this occasion the beneficiary is Professor Jennifer Davis, who had at this point just published an important book on Charlemagne’s government and had come to talk to us with the title, “Rethinking the Frankish Capitulary”.1 This is stuff that affects how the Frankish kings who separated Catalonia from the rest of the Iberian peninsula ruled there, so I care enough to make a post out of it so as to think more about it.

Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Ripoll, MS 40

The opening page of an actual Catalan text of some Frankish capitularies, in the copy of the collection of Ansegis in Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Ripoll, MS 40

Now, if you’ve never met the word ‘capitulary‘ that is not a reason to feel ignorant, because it’s arguably a word without a solid definition and is only used by scholars of the line of Frankish kings we call the Carolingians, but what they usually mean by it and what was meant here is documents of legislation arranged as headings or chapters, in Latin in capitula. This was how the rulers of the Carolingian kingdoms liked to issue new law, in collections of points that had needed ruling on at the same time. Some of them are more programmatic, when there was a policy at work that means lots of the laws connect up, and some are just the business of that particular assembly as it fell out.2 The ones that actually were issued in assembly, however—which by no means everything that’s ever been called a capitulary was—present a paradox, which is where this paper started: these are, as far as we can tell, legislation that was actually given out from royal assemblies, but the texts we have of them are all private copies, often slightly varying, with no clear sign that there was actually an ‘official’ text of the rulings anywhere. What kind of law is it that generates so much text but doesn’t actually stick to its own letter?

Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, MS Cod Guelf 130 Blank, fo. 35v

The end of the capitularies and the beginning of the laws, in a Carolingian legal collection now preserved as Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, MS Cod Guelf 130 Blank (fo. 35v)

There have, hitherto, been two fairly broad ways out of this particular difficulty and one newer, narrower one. The older one of the broad two is simply to assume that the Carolingians were way more ambitious in their legislation than was actually practical, that the ideals of the state outstripped its actual capacity.3 This seems necessarily to suppose that the Carolingians themselves didn’t know how well their own state worked, and while communications and knowledge networks were surely imperfect, then as now or more so, scholars have been less and less happy over time to assume in this way that we know better than our subjects did. The alternative broad way, therefore, associated forever with the name of Patrick Wormald, is to argue that the kings knew perfectly well that what they legislated probably wouldn’t actually happen but the point was to behave in a royal or imperial fashion by issuing law, by being seen to know what the good of the kingdom was and how it should be achieved, and in general to create the impression that royal government was doing what it should and living up to expectations. In this view legislation was primarily performative, and the number of texts we have of Carolingian legislation just indicate that the performance was well received.4

Drawing by L. Bethmann of a portrait of a Lombard king issuing law in the Codex Cavensis, c. 1005

Drawing by L. Bethmann of a portrait of a Lombard king issuing law in the Codex Cavensis, c. 1005; click through for a link to the full-size original drawing in context at the dMGH

In the last decade or so, however, law has become part of the material for a developing school of thought that says that although the Carolingians proclaimed a rhetoric of reform and correction and standardised a lot of texts, including those of the big traditional lawcodes that helped to define many of the identities within the Frankish Empire, uniformity may not have been the goal, as opposed to uniform participation, within which a certain amount of variety was not only tolerable, but maybe even necessary so as to be able to test different possible solutions to problems.5 By this reckoning the point of the capitularies was not to get everyone dancing to the same tunes, but to make it clear that the band was playing and they should listen. This was roughly where Professor Davis located her argument, but she did so only after touring us through a number of difficulties with any of the three solutions so far argued, based on a really good study of the manuscript evidence. For instance:

  • Charlemagne’s later capitularies repeatedly stress that everyone should know and even discuss what was in the laws, but there was still apparently no standard text or content for any collection of them; his son Louis the Pious had one made, but he did not.6
  • Apparently there were written copies in circulation, as well as the reports of the messengers who carried them, because some of the capitularies instruct their recipients to make copies of them upon receipt—so why don’t we have many copies that match? We have some, but few.
  • If you actually did have access to all the capitularies of the reign, they’d contradict each other quite a lot on some issues, so what were people supposed to learn?

Professor Davis’s overall suggestion was that, while details were sometimes important to know—and one particular capitulary was so keen on that that it required that a copy be made of itself and then signed by all present, and it’s possible we still have one copy of a lawcode – not a capitulary – that shows this happening, as you can see below—what the king was really after was a general knowledge of ‘the law’, writ broadly, in all its contradictory possibilities, whether canon law, Biblical law, ‘Frankish’ or other ‘ethnic’ law or the capitularies; as long as the royal right to be authoritative was recognised, and people did this work to discuss and know the law because the king required it, the fact that this might create the crazily-paved pattern of slightly different selections, determinations and versions of ‘the law’ all across the empire might not matter; people using it would still be doing right at royal behest.

The opening of the Law of the Ribuarian Franks in München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm. 4115, fo. 1r, apparently signed in quite a variety of hands

I think this does help us squeeze through that narrow gap of conformity-not-uniformity while still recognising that these texts appear to require specific behaviour of their audience, but the contradictions from our point of view don’t entirely go away with this answer, and there was some pushback in discussion from well, me and Susan Reynolds, and I don’t like to consider myself the awkward squad but—no, that’s probably a lie actually; I kind of do. Anyway; Susan thought that it was more likely that the texts existed to provide governmentalised sanction of what people were already doing, so reflect steady practice rather than royal direction of change, to which Professor Davis reasonably argued that some of the texts are explicit about innovating, which would seem to lose some of the benefit of confirming custom if that’s what you were doing; and I argued from there that the centre sometimes aimed to change ‘custom’ by contradicting the big lawcodes which it itself had compiled, so clearly had a programme of sorts, and wondered whether there were limits on the variation the centre would allow. To this Professor Davis argued that considerable autonomy of interpretation would have been allowed to those making legal judgements, especially counts and judges, but that they were expected to be making those judgements on the basis of knowing this aggregate of usable law. I am sort of OK with that, as it is very much how law was being applied in tenth-century Catalonia, as we’ve seen. But that was another century, and besides the law was the Goths’, so I wouldn’t like to be sure that this is Catalonia being Carolingian; maybe we have something more broadly Wormaldian about what early medieval law was for here… In his absence, I guess we’ll figure it out by ourselves eventually! But this was a step along the way, I thought.


1. Jennifer R. Davis, Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire (Cambridge 2015).

2. A recent discussion with the kind of nuance I’m trying to imitate here is Christina Pössel, “Authors and Recipients of Carolingian Capitularies, 779–829” in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Pössel and Philip Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12 (Wien 2006), pp. 253–274.

3. I think of this as being the domain of François-Louis Ganshof, in particular his “The Last Period of Charlemagne’s Reign: A Study in Decomposition”, in idem, The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy: Studies in Carolingian History, transl. Janet Sondheimer (London 1971), pp. 240–255, online here, but more specifically on this issue Ganshof, Was waren die Kapitularien? (Darmstadt 1961).

4. Patrick Wormald, “Lex Scripta and Verbum Regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in P. H. Sawyer and I. N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105–138, repr. in Patrick Wormald, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West: Law as Text, Image, and Experience (London 1999), pp. 1–44. The issue must also be covered in his The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, Volume I: Legislation and Its Limits (Oxford 1999), but I don’t have easy access to a copy just now to check.

5. As well as Pössel, “Authors and Recipients”, see Carine van Rhijn, “Manuscripts for Local Priests and the Carolingian Reforms” in Steffen Patzold & van Rhijn (edd.), Men in the Middle: Local Priests in Early Medieval Europe, Ergänzungsband der Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde 93 (Berlin 2016), pp. 177–198.

6. That being the Collection of Ansegis, of which one copy is shown above, on which see Stuart Airlie, “‘For it is written in the law’: Ansegis and the writing of Carolingian royal authority” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Janet L. Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), pp. 219–235.

Will the real Charles the Great please hide a moment?

The Leeds incarnation of the Universities and Colleges Union strike is beginning to look a bit like Occupy – remember that? – on its fourth day, and as I’ve mentioned I’ll be taking part in the UCU teach-outs today at the Quaker Meeting House on Woodhouse Lane, schedule here, in case anyone local is reading. But before then there is just about time for a short post about Charlemagne. Unless it’s not Charlemagne…

Universities and Colleges Union gazebo at the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

Universities and Colleges Union gazebo at the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

What do I mean and why am I in doubt? Well, one of the very last acts of the Carolingian dynasty of Frankish kings on their notional Spanish March that is now more or less Old Catalonia was a charter issued by King Lothar III to the monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès in 985.1 It was by now long past the point where the Carolingians had land or rights in their control that they could grant out, and all the charter does is confirm the land and rights that Sant Cugat claimed already to have. This raises at least two questions, of course, one being whether they really held all of those lands and rights or whether getting royal confirmation that you did was just a first step towards acquiring them—how easily could Lothar have checked, and why would he have cared?—and the second being why royal confirmation should actually have made any kind of difference that meant it was worthwhile sending one of your monks all the way from Vallès to Compiègne, once he had found out that that was where he needed to be, and then back, given that the king couldn’t actually enforce any of the charter from where he was except through the people who were already there. These are good questions and I’ve looked at them in print, but today I want to look at a smaller question, which is where some of these lands and rights had supposedly come from.2

Page from the Cartulary of Sant Cugat del Vallès

I wanted to show you the actual document here, but it turns out that it itself only survives in a later copy in the monastery’s twelfth-century cartulary, which is very sparesely photographed. This is the only page from it I can find on the web whose copyright doesn’t preclude its reproduction, and it’s not the right page, but it is at least the right book, and is the best I can do! Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, Cartoral de Sant Cugat, fo. 243v, image from the Museu Virtual del Centre d’Estudis Santjustencs, no. 353, whereas we want fo. 2v, because of course, their royal charter was the first document in the volume!

You see, the thing that had driven Sant Cugat’s ambassador northwards on this occasion was the sack of Barcelona by Muslim armies in 985, in which Sant Cugat seems also to have suffered, though we’re not sure how much.3 This apparently cost them some of their documents, as indeed they apparently explained to Lothar, because he said in the charter:

“If, by restoring something of the properties of the saints in places destroyed by the tyranny of pagans we demonstrate the firmness of our benevolence in those gifts, we do not doubt at all that it redounds to the benefit of our soul. On account of which, let the industry of all our faithful men of the holy Church of God both present and future know that a certain Odo, abbot of the monastery of Sant Cugat, coming before the presence of our dignity, humbly besought our clemency that we would deign to confirm the collected properties of the monastery of Sant Cugat, eight miles distant from the city of Barcelona, conceded in the past or to be conceded in the future, with a decree of our royalty, the which we have done. We therefore concede to the aforesaid monastery all the things which [were contained] in the precepts of our predecessors, namely Charles the Great or Louis, our father, or by other scriptures of the faithful of Christ which we understand were burnt by the infestation of the pagans…”

I’m afraid this is roughly how the Carolingians rolled with their charters; trust me, it’s even harder to follow in the Latin. But behold, there he is, Charles the Great. But wait. The first notice we have of even a church at Sant Cugat is from 878, when it belonged to the cathedral of Barcelona. There may have been an abbot there by 895, and its own archive only starts in 904. But Charlemagne died in 814. For this reason Ramon d’Abadal, when editing this document, preferred to see in this a reference to a charter of King Charles the Bald (840-877), who finished up as Emperor (875-877), and might possibly have been thought of as ‘great’, at least compared to Charles the Simple (898-923), the only other contendor, and therefore his edition contains an entry for the notional precept of Charles the Bald that had been lost here.4 Still, if that is a reference to Charles the Bald, it’s the only one I know of to call him ‘Great’, whereas people were calling Charlemagne that within years of his death, as we have seen here before. But with the other king mentioned clearly being Louis IV (936-954), Lothar’s own father, the historical memory here didn’t necessarily go very far back. Whom were they actually talking about here?

Equestrian statue of Charlemagne or Charles the Bald in the Musée du Louvre, Paris

Equestrian statue of Charlemagne or Charles the Bald in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, which it is famously impossible to attribute securely to one or the other. I’m no longer sure where this image came from, I’m afraid!

I can’t solve this question, but there are three possibilities. Firstly, Sant Cugat, which later claimed to be a reactivation of a Visigothic monastery and does have a little archaeology going that far back, even if not necessarily monastic archaeology, may actually have been operating under Charlemagne and had a charter from him; we wouldn’t necessarily have the documentation, especially given the 985 sack.5 Secondly, it is possible that they did, as Abadal guessed, have a charter from Charles the Bald as emperor, which a century later they hopefully understood to be one of Charlemagne, given how much more famously he had been emperor and how much cooler that would be; it would have fitted with their own sense of antiquity from the then more-obvious ruins of the older occupation and it may have been a perfectly genuine mistake. Thirdly, of course, they may have been making the whole thing up, and possibly didn’t even have a charter of Louis IV; they would not by any means have been the only people who wound up claiming more after the sack of 985 than we suspect they lost in it.6

So, we could distinguish these possibilities as truth, error and fraud, but the thing is that from King Lothar’s point of view it really didn’t matter. Someone had come a very long way to get his royal approval of something; he was hardly going to refuse this chance to act in an area of his supposed kingdom where, despite some effort on his part, he had very little means of action.7 If it was all good, then he got his name into local commemorations and people hopefully became aware that the king could and would make such grants on request; but actually, it was probably better for him if the abbot was being disingenuous, because the only thing anyone aggrieved could do about that was, really, to come north in their turn and protest to the king, giving him further means of intervening on the March and reinforcing to his immediate courtly audience that places as far away as Catalonia looked to him for justice and authority. Really, it was a win-win for him and the one thing he wasn’t incentivised to do was cut Sant Cugat’s claims down. Furthermore, they were positively offering him a chance to renew the work of Charlemagne. Why would he ever refuse? And no-one, least of all King Lothar, needed to know whether Charlemagne had ever done such work in the first place. I would annoy King Lothar so much. But maybe that is sometimes the job of a historian! And maybe I’ll see you later while I annoy my employers by working for free! But that’ll do for today.


1. It’s edited in Ramon de Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, facsimile reprint, Mem&oagrave;ries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 75 (Barcelona 2007), 2 vols, Sant Cugat del Vallès III (I pp. 194-200).

2. My work in question being Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535.

3. See Gaspar Feliu, “Al-Mansur, Barcelona i Sant Cugat” in Acta Historica et Archaeologica Mediaevalia Vol. 3 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 49–54, online here.

4. Abadal, Catalunya Carolíngia II, I pp. 194-197, discusses the textual history and possibilities; his notice of the hypothetical earlier document is ibid. Sant Cugat del Vallès I (I p. 190).

5. For the best analysis of the sack and its documentary trail see Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, La presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007).

6. Ibid..

7. Jarrett, “Caliph, King or Grandfather”.

The intellectual impact of Charlemagne’s coinage

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

Sankt Gallen, MS 731, fo. 56r

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

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

Silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Toulouse between 792 and 812

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

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


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

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

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

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

Praying in tongues in a famine year

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

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

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

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

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

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

A niche on the roadside of la Vinya de Vallfogona

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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.