Tag Archives: Franks

Seminar CCX: reading backwards into Frankish brooches

I have to start with the now-usual apology for lapse in posting; quite a lot is being required of me right now and mostly there is no time for blogging. In fact, like a proper obsessive compulsive I have a 12-step triage list for getting through the day without any of the spinning plates dropping, in which the blog is only no. 10 and in which on an ordinary day I’m rarely reaching no. 5… but we struggle on. In particular, I struggle on with the first seminar I went to in the Autumn term of 2014, and you can tell I was a bit busy then because that wasn’t till the 15th October. But on that date, Professor Guy Halsall, no less, was giving the David Wilson Lecture at the Institute of Archaeology in University College London, so obviously I was going to go. His title was “The Space Between: the ‘undead’ Roman Empire and the aesthetics of Salin’s Style I’.

A bronze clasp from Gotland

One of Salin’s own illustrations, a bronze clasp from Gotland busy with animal bits. Originally from Berhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornametik (Stockholm 1904).

For those that don’t know, Salin was a nineteenth-century archaeologist who worked on the artefacts of the period of the end of the Roman Empire in the West, particularly of the Franks, and he distinguished two styles of carving and ornament among their metalwork, which we still know as Style I and Style II.1 Style I is characterised by intertwined animal-form creatures (zoomorphs, is the rather splendid technical term) and disconnected animal or bird heads, in sometimes quite complex conjunction as you see above. Salin thought, and since he wrote many others have thought, that this was characteristic of the art of the barbarian peoples invading the Roman Empire, and could indeed be used as a proxy for their presence or at least influence.

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop, a clearer but more abstract example of the style

With this, Guy began by arguing, and arguing that Style I is not, and was never, characteristically Germanic, not least because it only appears in the fifth century, so was obviously being generated within the Empire and could hardly therefore be barbarians’ imported ancestral custom, and still less the shared ancestral custom of a whole range of previously-unconnected groups. With that out of the way, and entirely in keeping with his other writing on the subject, he proceeded to what on earth this style of carving may have meant.

A sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5

A good example case, a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5, with many significant-looking bearded heads to focus in on as this decoder page on the British Museum blog shows.

It’s not that no-one’s tried doing this, of course: people have seen in this art archetypes of Germanic folk heroes and gods and apotropaic serpents and so on, but as Guy pointed out such information can only be drawn from much later Norse sources, written after Christianization, which is thus in several ways the wrong direction to make these artefacts face; those traditions and that worldview not only come from later than the objects, but might have been partly formed by those objects or objects like them.2 Rather than being anachronistic like this, therefore, Guy opted to be ‘achronic’, and employ the work of the modern theorist Derrida to try and understand how these signifiers did their signifying.3

The Roman general Stilicho portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The master signifier made manifest, a supposed barbarian—none other than the Roman general Stilicho—portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The question here seems to me to be a good one, and perhaps it could not have been asked like that without the use of such modern work, but it still seems to me that this is not achronism but witting anachronism. That might not be bad, though, depending on what it gets you. What it got Guy was a development of his argument that Roman identity is idealised as the civil self-governed male, and that from the third century onwards that identity was challenged to the point of destruction by peripheral and destructive identifications, for Guy more or less what being ‘barbarian’ meant, the powerful other whom it became increasingly cool to be like. For Guy this only works because of the core referent, the old Roman identity against which this was expressed, a periphery set against a centre which comes to be the new defining cultural identification.4

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle, with animal heads confined to its ends

So on this occasion Guy tried to fit Style I into this framework, as an artform in which the periphery takes over, the beasts and interlace erasing the geometric centres common in late Roman ornamental metalwork. He argued that this was a deliberate artistic expression of uncertainty, in which it is no accident that we can’t tell,that contemporaries could not have told, how many animals there actually are on the brooch. It was born ‘out of disturbance’, that disturbance presumably being the breakdown of the Roman West with all its concomitant changes in social and economic organisation and prosperities. The areas worst hit by all this are not where Style I seems to have originated, Guy admitted, but it spread into them very quickly. The signification of the Empire was now uncertain, indeterminate and ‘undead’, in the sense that no-one could be sure it wouldn’t yet rise again, as it had done before.5 And the art that best captured that mood was Style I.

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum

I’m not sure if this is technically Style I, but it gets the point about indeterminacy over nicely… It is of course the Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum. “Belt buckle” by Michel walOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

I like that this lays such emphasis on uptake of material culture by an audience, rather than requiring it to move with immigrants as per the nineteenth century narrative that likewise refuses to die. Nonetheless, I have reservations. One of these is chronology: it was very recently, for example, that the relative stylistic chronology of lots of Anglo-Saxon metalwork was pushed back by fifty years.6 Even that preserves a stylistic chronology where some of the directional links are assumption. My limited knowledge of the Frankish metalwork suggests to me that there are lots more of those assumed links, many of which Guy has contested. With them uncertain, however, a similar shift backwards of the dating of this stuff would possibly radically change its relationship to other styles of metalwork. I am just not sure that we know well enough what comes before what and whether people necessarily only used one of these styles at once to hang such large arguments about cultural change off them. Then secondly, of course this is an argument Guy has also made from other evidence. With the aid of Derrida he is now able to fit the metalwork into that theory comfortably too, and he might not even have needed the theorist. But it’s not a free reading of the evidence, if that were even possible.

And thirdly, of course, we cannot know what this stuff meant to people, not least because of a lot of it presumably being unconscious: how many people who wear black leather jackets have consciously thought “I want to look like a nineteen-fifties motorcyclist” rather than, “that’s cool?” How many people who wear Ramones t-shirts have actually heard any of the songs? And so on. “What were they thinking?” is one thing to ask; “what did they not realise they were thinking?” is a whole new order of superiority to take over our study subjects… So I am still fairly clear that what Guy was offering was, explicitly in fact, a theory brought from outside to bear upon dead people who can’t be questioned, and whatever it was that they thought about their dress accessories, they weren’t reading Derrida to do it. I don’t know that we can work out what this stuff meant to its users, but if we must try I would rather start with tools that they also had.7


1. The starting point for Salin style is of course Bernhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornamentik (Stockholm 1904), but an Anglophone introduction can be found in Günther Haseloff, “Salin’s Style I” in Medieval Archaeology 18 (Leeds 1974), pp. 1-18, online here.

2. An example of the kind of work Guy meant here, I guess, is Lotte Hedeager, “Myth and Art: a passport to political authority in Scandinavia during the Migration Period” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms. Papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 151-156.

3. I don’t know Derrida’s writings, but I guess from this webpage that the key text here is Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence (Paris 1967), in which case I should probably think twice about calling it modern; that’s older than Geertz…

4. See most obviously G. Halsall, “Gender and the End of Empire” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Vol. 34 (Durham NC 2004), pp. 17-40.

5. On this I thoroughly recommend Guy’s Barbarian Migrations and the End of the Roman West 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which has become part of how I think about this period.

6. John Hines (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London 2013). the primary text of reference for Merovingian stuff other than the work of Patrick Périn, which has its own problems, seems still to be Edward James, The Merovingian Archaeology of South-West Gaul, British Archaeological Reports (Supplementary Series) 25 (Oxford 1977), 2 vols, so some such reevaluation can’t be too far away! Guy’s Cemeteries and society in Merovingian Gaul: selected studies in history and archaeology, 1992-2009, On the Early Middle Ages 18 (Leiden 2009) starts this work but a systematic review will be necessary for a while yet.

7. I am aware in writing that that Guy posted on social media shortly after the lecture that he thought it was beyond the understanding of most of his audience. I may well have misunderstood it, given both that and that I’m reconstructing from year-old notes, but the text is online should you want to try it yourself, and I’m sure he will correct any misunderstandings too awful to be allowed to stand…

Seminar CXLV: Gregory of Tour’s F-word

I’m sorry it is taking so long to get momentum up again here. The arrival of Internet at home only occurred quite recently and all my teaching is on new courses so weekly maintenance of them is taking a while. There’s also an issue about exactly what to update with: I’m a year behind with seminars or very nearly, and they’re none of them advertisements for where I now work because I didn’t go to any here in that year, and my non-seminar blogging is even further behind, though that doesn’t date so badly. Obviously one thing that makes no sense to do is to blog papers on which others have already reported, and yet here I am doing just that. The paper in question is one by an ex-colleague, someone else who since got a job, Dr Erica Buchberger, and on the 10th October last year she was speaking at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title “Romans in a Frankish World: Gregory of Tours, Venantius Fortunatus and Ethnic Identities”, and Magistra already covered this at Magistra et Mater, but I have some things I want to add, what can I say, so here we are a year in the past. What’s a year when we’re discussing the sixth century, after all?

Frontispiece of manuscript of Gregory of Tours's Ten Books of Histories

Frontispiece of what even the Bibliothèque nationale de France call the History of the Franks, from Wikimedia Commons

As Magistra says, the issue at issue here was why Gregory, our foremost source for the early Frankish kingdoms, does not mention Romans among the population of the Frankish kingdoms, and Erica was arguing that because he still thought of everyone in his area as being Roman really, the word never needed to come up, especially as in broad terms it meant much less than an identity based on city and family or origin. In arguing this she has to deal with the fact that Gregory’s contemporary Venantius Fortunatus is quite happy to call people Romans, but as she observed, they are writing very different kinds of text, Gregory’s Histories in a Church tradition and apparently for a small private Church readership, and Venantius public praise poetry of a kind where ancient referents were just a lot more likely to have traction. And I’m fine with that, to an extent, and certainly the bit about Venantius.

I had, however, when this paper was given lately been re-reading Gregory, and I find it harder to be sure whom he meant by `Franks’. The Histories are translated as History of the Franks and for us it’s what they’ve become, but Gregory’s own titles appears just to have been Ten Books of Histories; even here there was no ethnicity.1 It’s not as if Franks don’t come up a lot but I have to say that it seems to me, not having done a proper count or anything, that the places are few, very few, where you could not replace the word `Frank’ with `warrior’ and have it do basically the same job. The Franks, as a group, is most often the army, or so it seems to me. Self-evidently Gregory thought descent and family was important, he praises many a person for the family they belonged to, and sneaks a great many of his own relatives on to stage without giving that away, and some of the people he praises for this nobility of birth are even Franks, in as much as they are in the military or civil government, have Germanic not Latin names and hang out at court. But single Franks identified as such are rare in the narrative, and where they do turn up they’re usually carrying weapons.

Museum display of supposedly-Frankish arms

‘Frankish’ arms, including the axe known for this reason as a ‘francisca’, in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, image from Wikimedia Commons

Obviously there are reasons why I read it like this, and they are principally that I have been using this as a test reading for early medieval texts that seem to be talking about ethnicity for a long time, ever since I read an article a while back that suggested that by the ninth century `Goth’ might be more or less a professional category.2 I also find it possible to get to this point by extrapolation from work like Guy Halsall’s suggesting that `barbarian’ units in the late Roman army might have been as ethnically Roman as they were barbarian, if either category really means much in a world already mixing; an analogy would be football teams like the Washington Redskins, who are not, I believe it is safe to say, native Americans or whatever the correct term is for `people who got here before the people we think we are did’ (to pick a topical example).3 I suspect that Professor Halsall wouldn’t go as far as this but you can see how one could get from there to a position where “Join the Army! Be a Frank!” doesn’t seem like a completely stupid slogan to imagine, especially given that what `Frank’ means etymologically is no more than `free man’. And, as was noted in questions, it’s not as if even Gregory is perfectly clean here; almost all his relatives whom he names are churchmen and have good Latin names, and the exception is a maternal uncle, Gundulf, who is a count. If Gregory didn’t say that man was his relative, I’m sure we’d largely assume he was a Frank. And I suspect he was, in the terms of the time, but I don’t think that has to mean Gregory thought he himself was one. One might even argue that, since families mix all the time and the upper nobility was quite presumably blended between immigrants and locals in most of the Gaulish cities by now, anyone who went into either civil administration or Church probably had both immigrant forebears and local ones and could duly emphasise whichever strand of ancestry he chose as his career developed. But I do wonder if even that much attempt to preserve an idea of ethnic descent is necessary to understand these texts and the time.

Besides: if you want to query Gregory for identities, wouldn’t it also make sense to look at how he uses the word `Gaul’… ?


1. The two translations usually used are The History of the Franks, transl. Oliver M. Dalton (New York 1927) and The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints). They’re both good but that’s not what the title is! The rest of this post would be more rigorous with book and chapter citations, but they would mean me slowly going through the whole work clocking ethnicity terms, duplicating Erica’s work in fact. I didn’t do that when re-reading and I shan’t do it now, so my impressions remain impressionistic; if someone feels they’re wrong and wants to substantiate that I’m more than happy to indicate as much in additions to the post or whatever.

2. Jesus Lalinde Abadia, “Godos, hispanos y hostolenses en la órbita del rey de los Francos” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991-1992), II pp. 35-74.

3. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), esp. pp. 189-194.

Seminar LXXXII: tiny laws and constraining categories

The lecture that had swallowed me is done and so I can tackle some backlog. In order to make some ground I’m going to reluctantly skip over two Oxford papers I went to about which, for one reason or another, I just don’t have anything useful to say,1 and skip straight on to Tom Faulkner presenting at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 26th January 2011, with the title “Peoples and Legal Practice in the Carolingian Minor Law-Codes”. Now, I dithered about skipping this one too, not because it wasn’t fascinating, but because again Magistra et Mater has got in ahead of me and covered it excellently already. But there remain a point or two that it’s still worth drawing out. You may want to read her post first, though, because she’s done a better job of explaining what the paper was actually about than I’m going to have time to do.

Opening of a 793 copy of the Lex Salica

Opening of a 793 copy of the Lex Salica, says the originating website

In 802 a couple of Carolingian sources record that Charlemagne had all the ‘laws of the nations’ in his empire written down and thus fixed.2 And we have a number of texts of such laws, the most obvious one being the Law of the Salian Franks or Salic Law, but also the Laws of the Burgundians, Laws of the Lombards, Laws of the Bavarians, and so on (and of course the Law of the Goths, which is different, not least because it’s actually called the Forum of the Judges—that is, it’s not ethnic in its presentation).3 Some of these things had been out there for a long time but that endeavour of 802 probably has a lot to do with the state of the current texts, Goths aside, not least because recent work by such as Christina Pössel is emphasising how new some of the apparently ‘ancient’ practices in the Salic Law might have been. But if so, there are some weirdnesses to tackle. There had been no independent Burgundian kingdom for nearly three hundred years by this time. Who called themselves a Burgundian any more and on what could that claim rest? And similar problems arise for texts Tom was talking about, not least the Ripuarian Franks, a group who appear in basically no sources other than this law. Ripuaria as an area does occasionally get mentioned, but it’s a pagus, not a regnum, a district not a kingdom. Tom argued that really, it might be little more than the territory of the see of Cologne. But this lawcode of a basically illusory people is one of the more copied ones of the group, perhaps just because it had useful stuff which could be raided for means with which to make decisions in the very (very!) few cases where we have reasons to suppose such lawcodes were actually used, rather than just stored up as tokens of nationality.

Map showing probable location of Amor

Map showing probable location of Amor

Such dilemmas get even more pronged when dealing with a text called the Ewa ad Amorem. This is a very different sort of law text, though it has been associated with this big endeavour: Tom laid it out for us and it seems pretty clearly like a set of rules being agreed in a community for how they’re going to handle various affairs, like land sales and thefts. It seems to relate to a little place in Frisia called Amor, and it is extensively referential to other codes (which is nice, because, as Tom had pointed out, Lex ribuaria actually quotes modified Salic law quite a lot too) and peoples, so that you get frankly unhelpful statements like: “… about ecclesiastical affairs and about the servants of God who serve there, we have the same, as the Franks have.” Which Franks? Salic, Ribuarian or real? And so on. Although Levi Roach found parallels in Anglo-Saxon laws (some of which are actually usually called treaties) and someone else in Venetian treaties with foreign powers, the whole thing put me in mind of nothing so much as Spanish fueros, which were civil law codes constructed for new towns in the frontier zones, by the locals in agreement with the king. The counts of Catalonia do the same sort of thing sometimes, too. A central authority and its rights are recognised, but the actual day-to-day stuff is left local, and the implication there is that that’s because they’re rather on their own and central help and involvement will be hard to come by. In that last respect, though, Ewa ad Amorem is different; it’s clear from a reading that this code has become necessary precisely because king’s officers, counts and so on have been in the area a lot and there are problems making this mesh with the local way of doing things, not least because until this was written probably there was limited agreement on what that way was. So, though Tom didn’t really make much of this point, this little code is more interesting to me than the big ones because it seems to have the same sort of ad hoc necessity as some of the capitularies, and may show us how being on the more-or-less-willingly receiving end of Carolingian administrative reform worked out in practice.

A folio of the Capitulare de Villis, from Wikimedia Commons

A folio of the Capitulare de Villis, from Wikimedia Commons

More could be done with this, but only if we spread the categories we have for Carolingian law more thoroughly away from the binary of codes and capitularies (or proscriptive and responsive, ethnic and royal, regional and central… always with the diads, as Susan Reynolds has observed, when triads (or arrays!) might be more helpful) into something a bit more slippery. As Susan herself said, it’s not that there are no categories that work for this: all these things are sets of rules, of some sort, but putting them into a particular ‘sort’ has often distorted our subsequent thinking about them. And we have the same problem with a lot of other categories in this area: the capitularies themselves are so-called solely because they are arranged in headings, capitula (chapters, capitals…). They cover an immense range of topics, however, and are in form anything from minutes of meetings or even agendas for meetings that maybe didn’t happen through case-law being worked out into general knowledge to grand-scale moral state-of-the-empire preaching addresses.4 Not even the process is the same here and a different word or words for some of them might help us think. And even I could adjust: `charter’ is a good catch-all for the documents I want to study but only with exactly the right definition.5 But my category covers sales, donations, wills, securities, homage agreements, pledges, manumissions and basically most stuff, and people have put a lot of work into worrying if these things all work the same way and much of it has made useful distinctions.6 So Tom deserves all credit for making what could have been a dry and technical field accessible an of lively interest to an audience many of whom specialise in other things, but he has also given me some useful tools with which to try and enlarge my own, er, toolbox. (Pity he didn’t give me some new metaphors too, right?)


1. Mark Williams, “Stormy Weather: divine women and the figure of sin in Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca“, Oxford Celtic Seminar, 20th January 2011, was as engaging and entertaining as Mark always is, where I’ve seen: he tells good stories about good stories. But aside from the fact that it is a good story, I really wouldn’t know what to say about the paper: it was all new to me. I probably can’t spell most of it, even. And Richard Allen, “Life before Lanfranc: the careers of three archbishops of Rouen, 942-1054/5”, Oxford Medieval History Seminar, 24th January 2011, was an expansion of the earlier paper of Richard’s I reported on last year and I don’t think I can think of anything extra to say this time round.

2. Specifically Einhard’s Vita Karoli and the Annals of Lorsch, the former of which is edited in the MGH and thus online here and more accessibly to the Anglolexic, at the cost of some appreciation of how cunning his Latin is I am told, and more on that later, by Lewis Thorpe in his Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth 1969, many reprints), and the latter edited by Ernst Katz in Georgius Heinricus Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica inde ab anno Christi quingentesimo usque ad annum millesimum et quingentesimum: Scriptores tomus I (Hannover 1839), pp. 19-39, and mostly translated by P. D. King in his Charlemagne: translated sources (Lancaster 1987), pp. 137-145.

3. As well as the snippets from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook I’ve linked to above, most of these texts exist in some kind of translation, thus I know of: Katherine Fischer Drew (transl.), The Laws of the Salian Franks (Philadelphia 1991) and eadem (transl.), The Lombard Laws (Philadelphia 1996), though I also know that I somewhere read a review of the former by Patrick Wormald (in English Historical Review or Speculum I think, something I could hit by accident on JSTOR anyway) in which he said, roughly, “well, we’ve been needing a decent translation of the Salic Law for a long time and guess what, we still do”. Not a man to mince his words, dear Mr Wormald. There’s also Theodore John Rivers (transl.), The Laws of the Salian and Ripuarian Franks (New York City 1986), which I guess didn’t meet his exacting taste either. Still plenty more to do though. For the Goths, there’s S. P. Scott (transl.), The Visigothic Code (New York City 1910, 2nd. edn. 1922), online here. The Latin of all these texts and more is edited in the various volumes of the MGH’s Leges series. On how the Visigothic Law survives in this period, you can see Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet‘: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (London 1985), pp. 489-512, & idem, “Visigothic Law and Regional Diversity in Disputes in Early Medieval Spain” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (eds), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 85-104, both of which are reprinted in R. Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), V & VI respectively, but now also Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 33-55.

4. Best now approached via Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written word (Cambridge 1989), pp. 23-37, and now Christina Pössel, “Authors and Recipients of Carolingian Capitularies, 779-829” in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Pössel & Peter Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12, Denkschriften der phil.-hist. Klasse 344 (Wien 2008), pp. 253-274.

5. And that definition is: “A document constructed as if for public reference, by which one party affirms the rights of another”, for which if you like you can quote J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London 2005), p. 27. I think it’s the only one that works.

6. Not least of course Wendy Davies, Acts of Giving: Individual, Community, and Church in Tenth-Century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007), which deliberately covers only one sort of document and is really interesting about it.

History and hagiography (short book plaudit)

Cover of Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding, Late Merovingian France

Cover of Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding, Late Merovingian France

A luxury that we don’t often get with the early Middle Ages is being able to contrast two opposing sources. It is kind of the key of how we try to teach students, or at least I would like it to be, but nonetheless it’s rather rare in any situation from our period to be able to clearly define two or more sides to a question and then find sources from those sides. However, sanding down my mental rust patches for the QMUL teaching led me to take a rapid run through Paul Fouracre’s and Richard Gerberding’s Late Merovingian France and somewhat to my surprise that is one of the things it can offer, in the form of two saints lives, that of Leudegar and that of Præjectus, who almost through no fault of their own wound up as leaders of opposing factions at the same royal court in 675, a court which saw the arrest and blinding of one and the murder of his chief ally, a murder for which the other was then blamed and murdered by his opponents when he got home.1 This, when sewn together by the cunning of the editors’ commentary, makes quite a good thing to learn with. I am more convinced than ever that Roger Collins might have been right when, at a legendary seminar held shortly after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, he told us all that that proved what he’d known all along, that the real money was with the Merovingians.

The blinding of St. Leger, Bishop of Autun, from a French Bible of c. 1200 via Wikimedia Commons

The blinding of St. Leger, Bishop of Autun, from a French Bible of c. 1200 via Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Saint Præjectus (Saint Pry) at Saint-Prix (Val-d\'Oise), from Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Saint Præjectus (Saint Pry) at Saint-Prix (Val-d'Oise), from Wikimedia Commons

I hadn’t realised how political these saints’ lives could get. I rather like hagiography as a source but I’m too used to Celtic vitae which are most fun because of how crazy their miracles are. With the saints’ lives that Fouracre and Gerberding pick, though, the miracles are almost an afterthought; though the protagonists lead holy lives, they are known as saints mainly because of miracles after their deaths, and their ‘martyrdom’ is not so much explained by their faith but by their being obdurate in the face of entirely worldly opposition. This makes the texts less cult promotion and more efforts of community reconciliation, and they have lots of spiky bits that couldn’t yet be forgotten when they were written. The grit and argument is very well brought out by the editors and the things that they feel the sources show clearly explained. These sources also include a chunk (but not all, as I had somehow come to believe) of the Liber Historiae Francorum, one of the few narrative histories of the pre-royal Carolingians that actually predates their becoming royal, and a largish swathe of the Annales Mettenses priores for contrast, plus Lives of SS Balthild, Audoin, Aunemund, Leudegar, Præjectus, Geretrud and Foillan, all of whose stories touch at points, mostly through the court (e. g. Aunemund is supposedly killed by order of Balthild, Geretrud is daughter of Pippin II). These are largely sympathetically translated—Merovingian Latin is apparently less ornate than Carolingian stuff, which is partly shown by the later Annales included here—and only a few modern idioms jar. The single defect is that the book is plagued with typoes, almost all of which seem to be omitted letters; I don’t know if there was some botched transfer from hard to electronic copy that stripped line ends or something, but it seems to have been something like that. These do not, however, stop this being one of the most interesting and well-presented source volumes I’ve ever used and I only wish it covered more years.2


1. Full citation: Paul Fouracre & Richard A. Gerberding (transl.), Late Merovingian France: history and hagiography 640-720, Manchester Medieval Sources (Manchester 1996); the Passio Leudegarii and Passio Præjecti are pp. 193-300.

2. I think my favourite source-book remains Paul Dutton’s Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1 (Peterborough ON 1994, repr. 2002), because of the huge range of stuff it has in it and the erudite translations, but I realise that this isn’t much use if you’re not studying the Carolingians. Well, you know, why not start?

Excellentissima et merito famosissima historica I

At last the truth can be revealed. Why was I writing a paper about nuns all of a sudden? Why hadn’t it been in the sidebar as my next due paper? What was all the foreshadowing in that earlier post about? Now it can be told.

RM Monogramme

Very recently Professor Rosamond McKitterick had a significant birthday and, seeing this coming from some way off, various of her students had had the idea of a birthday conference. This, and its title which forms the subject header, was largely the brainchild of Richard Pollard, who also designed the monogram you see above and generally did the bulk of the donkey-work while the rest of us who were in one way or another participating kept quiet, tried not to tell ask anyone for help that wouldn’t be able to do similarly and, in the case of David McKitterick, her husband, made sure she kept the relevant weekend free without explaining why. And duly at 14:00 on September 12th she was escorted into Trinity College in Cambridge and found a gathering of about forty of her fellows, erstwhile and current students there basically to say thanks. As the person in that gathering with, I think, the longest hair other than Rosamond herself, and possibly one or two of the younger women, I feel myself uniquely qualified to say, “there was a whole lot of love in that room, man”. She’s had an awful lot of students and a lot of them have gone on to be important themselves. Some of us still hoping, also. But, well, it’s a conference. With due discretion and all that, obviously I’m still gonna blog it, if only to list the names…

Rosamond McKitterick, Professor of Medieval History and Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

Rosamond McKitterick, Professor of Medieval History and Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

The folder I have my notes stashed in has the monogram on the front. It contains a short biography of Rosamond, the programme, a map and contact details (all very well to hand out on arrival, but surely only useful before! this is my only criticism of the organisation) and a full or as-near-full-as-possible bibliography of Rosamond’s work, which registers (deep breath) six monographs, another co-written, six volumes of essays that she edited, another that she co-edited, and two volumes of collected papers, and eighty-two articles and chapters (not including stuff in the volumes she edited), one alone of which was co-written. If you don’t know Rosamond’s work, this may give you an idea that she is an important scholar in quantity as well as quality. Then, on the specially-printed notepaper (why yes, they did get some funding since you ask…), we have notes on the following papers.

    Keynote Address

  • Janet Nelson, “New Approaches to Carolingian Reform, or 1969, 1971, 1977 and All That”. The keynote address, which placed Rosamond in the context of her teaching by Walter Ullmann, something that Jinty also went through, and drawing the roots of Rosamond’s first work into the many branches it now has, full of shared remembrance and intriguing background that could have been supplied by no-one else.

    Session 1. The Reformatio monastica karolina

  • Marios Costambeys, “Paul the Deacon, Rome and the Carolingian Reforms”. Argued that Paul the Deacon‘s conception of Rome deliberately ignores its Christian and recent Imperial heritage, referring to it in terms of its earliest history to place both its history and the new Frankish rule in inarguable and uncontested Antiquity.
  • Rutger Kramer, “The Cloister in the Rye: Saint-Seine and the early years of Benedict of Aniane”. More or less as title except that that was the only terrible pun involved, a critical reading of the Vita Benedicti Anianensis pondering whether Benedict was in fact at first one of Carloman’s party not Charlemagne’s and how far his initial monastic conversion might have been a political retreat, then moving into questions of how his initial drive for asceticism apparently transformed to a desire for uniformity ‘that we can believe in’.
  • Sven Meeder, “Unity and Uniformity in the Carolingian Reform Efforts”. Argued that the Carolingian ideal of unity should not be mistaken for uniformity and that it was always ready to accept a good deal of diversity to which its own efforts only added. Arguable, but probably not with the Oxford English Dictionary definitions used; Susan Reynolds would have been unable to stay quiet in questions had she been there.
  • Some critical questions here especially for the latter two papers, and perhaps most notable among them James Palmer asking if, in fact, Carolingian reform could ever have succeeded adequately for its proponents or whether a perception of failure was built in. Sven responded, I think wisely, that the ultimate aim was to make the kingdom favoured by God and so the proof would be seen in events. It’s an interesting cycle of paranoia that this kind of drive might have set up, however. I think we see something similar with Æthelred the Unready‘s vain attempts to prescribe extra piety when the Danes just keep coming in his autumn years.

condal128

    Session 2. Reform from without, reforms to without

  • Benedict Coffin, “The Carolingian Reformation in the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Churches”. Drawing out even more similarities between Carolingian and English reform movements as well as a few crucial differences, not least that in England it was primarily Benedictine not royal.
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”. You basically saw a chunk of this paper already, and I had to leave a lot of detail out, but it went OK and did everything I hoped for. Completely overwhelmed however by…
  • Julia M. H. Smith, “Wrapped, Tied and Labelled: importing Jerusalem, recycling Rome in the early Middle Ages”, exploring the contents of the altar in the Sancta Sanctorum in the Lateran in Rome, which transpires to have been installed by Leo III and to have contained, in 1906 when it was last opened, a mind-boggling assortment of Holy Land soil, branches, twigs, etc. from significant places there, as well as martyr relics probably from the other patriarchal sees, replacing Rome’s pagan history with a new one imported from Jerusalem and elsewhere. The illustrations were fascinating and it was a really interesting paper.
Behind those grilles is the box installed by Leo III

Behind those grilles is the box installed by Leo III

The evening was rounded off, well, for me at least, with a pre-dinner paper given by Yitzhak Hen. I won’t attempt to describe that here except to say that what I’ve written about his work here before may have failed to take his sense of humour into account. Then, there was a wine reception and a dinner, but I, with my usual mismatch of engagements, ran into London for one of the best gigs I’ve been to for a long time. But I was back the next day, aching of neck and back and short of sleep, and I will describe that later.

What’s in an immunity?

Cover of Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre, Property and Power in Early Medieval Europe

A recent arrival in the “what do you mean you’ve never read that?” category is the second volume of essays by the Bucknell group, Property and Power in Early Medieval Europe edited by Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre. I should of course have read it, and now I am doing, and straight away it is throwing up things to think about. First up, immunities. The introduction, by Chris Wickham and Timothy Reuter, has some quite interesting stuff about immunities. What is an immunity, I hear you ask, being quietly confident that I mean something other than resistance to the Black Death? Well, I’ll try and explain without being boring. Give me a moment to pep myself up here… Okay.

An immunity, in this sense, is a concession you get from the king that means that the property to which it applies no longer pays tax or renders to him, or has to answer to his judicial officials, who may or may not be his direct servants or the local nobility’s acting in the king’s name. (Maybe there’s no difference most of the time.) As those proceeds are no longer going to the king, the immunist keeps them, and though there may be exclusions (Anglo-Saxon grants almost always reserve work on bridges, guard service in fortresses and hospitality to royal messengers, for example, the so-called trinoda necessitas) it’s not a bad little earner. It is also, as Wickham and Reuter pointed out, basically for the Church. There is an argument that says that when so little of the documentation used by lay people survives, we wouldn’t necessarily have these, of course, but as a paper I hope to have out soon arguing with another in Early Medieval Europe shows, I think, even where we do have royal concessions of this general sort to laymen, they don’t look the same as Church immunities.

Where I start to have to differ from Wickham and Reuter is in their subtle argument that, whereas concessions like this are usually seen as weakness on the part of the king, who is effectively granting away his right to rule an area entirely, they should actually be seen as evidence of the closeness of the beneficiary to the king. What’s the point, they argue, of getting a concession that frees you from the intervention of royal agents, if royal agents are no longer working? Why do you go to the king at all if that’s the situation? So actually immunities are a reliance on the king for protection, they say, and that sounds quite convincing, doesn’t it? Except. That.

We get lots of these concessions in Catalonia, till late on. The last royal document to Catalonia is from 986, the year before Louis V, last monarch of the Carolingian line, dies and hands over the realm, inadvertantly, to the Capetians. By then, no Carolingian ruler has been to Spain for 179 years. None has even come as far south as the other side of the Pyrenees for nearly a century. The Carolingians no longer appoint the counts of Catalonia, they’ve been succeeding en famille since 898. The last Catalan count to come to court is Guifré of Besalú in 954, when he needs royal approval to help him with deposing a local viscount, but before that, none had done so since perhaps 891, or maybe 882, and if you would rather a date of which we’re certain, since 878. There are no signs of royal vassals still working in the area; Josep Maria Salrach suspects that the last ones rebel in 957 and get bloodily suppressed. So by 986 any royal concession to Catalonia is a dead letter, and has arguably been for some time; the kings cannot make things happen here. It certainly doesn’t show any closeness to the king or the court; they send people, or sometimes just letters to get these things, but that’s the only time they show up at court, and the king can expect nothing from them. So what’s the point?

It could be argued that having a royal diploma, even if it’s no practical use, is a status play, makes you look important, ancient, deeply established, and thus may profit your house indirectly. But it may actually be more direct use than that. You see, it does seem that though there is no reason for the counts to pay any attention to these things, they do actually do so. Evidence of this comes from a series of nine immunities issued to the cathedral of Girona between 816 and 922, because their content changes. In one they claim fifty per cent of the toll from the city of Girona; in the next they’ve ratcheted it down to a third. If you can’t actually make good on the claim at all, why would you bother? This must be a negotiation with the counts: “Nay, Bishop Guiu, ‘enutritus in aula‘ thee may ‘ave been, but tharen’t ‘avin’ all that. A third’s what we let tha predecessor ‘ave and that’ll ‘ave to do for thee. Now then.” So these documents are worth having; but only because the counts respect them, even though there’s nothing the king could do if they chose not to.1 Now as to why that is, well, that’s a different paper. Give me a few months :-)

P. .S. They also point out, elsewhere in the introduction, that the sort of concepts of property I was struggling with the lack of in my documents a while ago belong to Classical Roman law and seem to have dropped out of Vulgar law. If this means I need to read Roman law to finish that paper idea I may have second thoughts…


1. The precise cite for the paper in question here is C. Wickham & T. Reuter, “Introduction” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (eds), Property and Power in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 1995), pp. 1-16. As that emerged the now-standard work on Frankish immunities was in press, and it is Barbara H. Rosenwein, Negotiating Space: power, restraint and privileges of immunity in early medieval Europe (Ithaca 1999), but I’ve never yet quite worked out how to fit what she says into my thinking. On these documents specifically and especially the Girona case, there is an excellent article which is almost impossible to get hold of, but I give you the reference anyway: Ramon Martí, “La integració a l’«alou feudal» de la seu de girona de les terres beneficiades pel «règim dels hispans». Els casos de Bàscara i Ullà, segles IX-XI” in J. Portella i Comas (ed.), La Formació i Expansió del Feudalisme Català: actes del col·loqui organitzat pel Col·legi Universitari de Girona (8-11 de gener de 1985). Homenatge a Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Estudi General: revista del Col·legi Universitari de Girona, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona Nos. 5-6 (Girona 1986), pp. 49-63 with Castilian summary p. 530, French summary p. 543 & English summary p. 556. Ramon Martí is another of those whose articles generally deserve a reprint volume. Anyway, there you are.