Tag Archives: Saxony

Seminar CCXV: class warfare in ninth-century Saxony—or not

We now push on through my awful backlog to 19th November 2014, which was a great day because on it I was able to walk into the Institute of Historical Research in London for the first time in some years, it having completed its lengthy refurbishment. This made me very happy; it has been as close as I’m ever likely to get to having a London club for some years and I had missed it sorely. I’m not a huge fan of the new æsthetics of the Common Room but the tea and cake is the kind of value you don’t see elsewhere in London and they have expanded the Spain and Portugal Room to more than twice its previous size, so I could go and commune with my source materials knowing that it was no longer possible for one person determined to spread out the day’s newspapers together on the table to make it impossible for anyone else to work in there. But leaving such personal glee aside, what was I doing back in the old IHR? Why a seminar of course, namely Dr Ingrid Rembold, presenting to the now-legendary Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title “The Stellinga, the Saxon Elite and Carolingian Politics”.

You see there is this odd moment recorded in the sources for the wars between the sons of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-840 as I’m sure you know) over their succession, in which something that looks suspiciously like a popular revolt flared up in the not-long-conquered province of Saxony. The reluctant and unfortunate historian Nithard gives the fullest account:

“… The gens is divided into three orders, and indeed they are called in those parts edhilingui, frilingi and lazzi, that is in Latin noblemen, freemen and serfs. Yet a part of the Saxons, who are held to be noble in those parts, was divided into two factions in the dissension between Lothar and his brothers, and one part followed Lothar; the other, Louis. Considering these things, Lothar recognised that, following the victory of his brothers [at Fontenoy, 841], the people who had been with him might wish to defect, and, being obliged by various necessities, he sought help from whomever he could in any way possible. He therefore started putting public property to private use, giving freedom to some, promising others that he would reward them after victory, and he also sent into Saxony for the frilingi and lazzi, of whom there are an innumerable multitude, promising that if they would follow him, he would let them have from then on the law which their ancestors had had in the times when they were worshippers of idols. Desirous of this above all, they established a new name for themselves, that is Stellinga, and having pressed together into one group almost expelled the lords from the kingdom and were living by whatever law they wished in their former manner.”

This ended badly for them: once it had become clear that despite this and Viking backing Lothar was not going to be able to keep his younger brother Louis the German out of Saxony, in 842, Louis was more less left free, as Nithard put it, to ‘nobly curb the mutineers in Saxony… with lawful slaughter’. And thus ended the rebellion, though there was another brief burst of it a year or two later.1

Rather worryingly, there seems to be a lot of modern film made about this episode. I omit the one that manages to segue from a dramatisation of a Frankish rape of a Saxon woman straight to an interview with Johannes Fried—I kid you not—and instead use this one which seems mainly to be darkness and fire

Other sources vary the picture somewhat. The Annals of St Bertin, being written in the Western kingdom claimed by Charles the Bald, the other two’s younger half-brother, come much closer to saying that the Saxons went pagan again, choosing “to imitate the habits of the pagans rather than to preserve the sacraments of Christian faith”, and says that Louis executed 154 ringleaders. The Annals of Xanten, however, from Lothar’s kingdom, more or less explicitly call it a slave revolt that seriously weakened the local nobility, whereas the Annals of Fulda, from Louis the German’s side, say something similar but call the rebels liberti, ‘freedmen’ or ex-slaves and only mention the 842 part of the episode.2 It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the lower-class revolt angle that’s been picked up by most modern writing about this so far, at the most extreme seeing it as a kind of proto-communism fuelled by the kind of Germanic democracy described by Tacitus seven centuries before by way of signalling to Rome what it had lost by abandoning the Republic for an emperor. The Stellinga thus get lumped together with the similarly ambiguous Bacaudae of the fifth century and the unfortunate ninth-century Frankish peasants who banded together against the Vikings, causing their nobility to put down such initiative “with fire (and according to certain obstinate historians, the sword)”.3

That tendency is understandable, since it looks like things we recognise from much more recent eras, but it has the whiff of anachronism about it, and Ingrid duly called it into question. If I read back through my notes well enough, she argued for an initiative by relatively low-level élites in Saxony looking to climb into the higher levels of status in the area by means of the imperial generosity, and finding themselves with either more liberty or less support than they had expected, and perhaps both, leaving them with no way back and their only hope being to take what they could now get and hope to hold onto some of it, in other words a not very abnormal power-grab entirely within the usual operation of Carolingian power politics.4 And this does make much more sense in terms of contemporary categories than proto-Communism, but I can’t help but object that it isn’t what the sources say. There was a language for such operations, which is focussed on leaders and the justice or otherwise of their claims, and I felt an alternative reading could easily be constructed and that Ingrid’s involved taking a rather fastidious route through the sources. To be fair, although questions forced her to broaden her admission of this dissonance, she managed to defend the basic core of her argument.

Weapons from the early Saxon cemetery of Liebenau

It’s hard to find very many illustrations for early Carolingian Saxony; these weapons, from the Liebenau cemetery, have at least a decent claim to be actually Saxon and have apparently been dated between the fourth and ninth centuries. Foto: Axel Hindemith / , via Wikimedia Commons.

I remain a bit uncomfortable with it, though. Chris Lewis made a point that I thought was probably right, that the sources’ authors seem to be recording something unusual which they don’t understand, and we have inherited their confusion. The things that emerge from all the reports for me are that this was a large-scale movement, involving people under lordship threatening those lords’ control, and that (to editorialise a little) Louis was therefore able to win those lords for his party by enforcing their lordship again. Some of our sources however seem to have remembered that in Saxony a deep hierarchy of lordship was a comparatively new phenomenon, and that the Saxons had used to be such a range of unconnected groups that it had been very hard to impose treaty terms made by any one of their leaders upon them at large.5 It seemed to me that what our sources feared was a return to those bad old ways in which there were fewer and less organised leaders and therefore less outside control, especially since many of those lords (domini, as Nithard and the Annals of Fulda both put it) were presumably immigrant Franks ruling over people whose background they did not share. This seems to me to fit well with how Nithard sententiously winds up his report: “And thus died by authority what had presumed to rise up without authority”; in other words, what killed them—Carolingian top-down lordship—was what they had aimed to escape. That said, Ingrid is right that this obviously didn’t seem like a danger to Lothar and she may therefore be right that the group’s aspirations changed as the war went on, but I still think that the roots of this revolt were more likely to be a wish for a return to older and lighter hierarchies of lordship (though not no lordship at all!) rather than certain people trying to climb higher in them.6


1. Nithard, Historia, ed. Philippe Lauer as Histoire des fils de Louis le Pieux (Paris 1964), rev. Sophie Glansdorff (Paris 2012), transl. in Bernhard Walter Scholz & Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Ann Arbor 1972), pp. 127-174, IV.2, IV.4 & IV.6 (where quoted, quoted in Ingrid’s translation modified by me).

2. Annals of St-Bertin, ed. Félix Grat, Jeanne Vielliard & Suzanne Clemencet as Annales de Saint-Bertin (Paris 1964), trans. Janet L. Nelson as Annals of St-Bertin (Manchester 1992), s. aa 841-842; Annals of Xanten, ed. Bernhard von Simson in idem (ed.), Annales Xantenses et Annales Vedastini, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XII (Hannover 1909, repr. 2003), online here, s. aa. 841-842; Annals of Fulda, ed. Friedrich Kurze as Annales Fuldenses sive Annales regni Francorum orientalis, MGH (SRG) VII (Hannover 1891, repr. 1993), online here, transl. Timothy Reuter as The Annals of Fulda (Manchester 1991), s. a. 842.

3. References are collected in Eric J. Goldberg, “Popular Revolt, Dynastic Politics and Aristocratic Factionalism in the Early Middle Ages: the Saxon ‘Stellinga’ reconsidered” in Speculum Vol. 70 (Cambridge MA 1995), pp. 467-501, which until Ingrid gets this into print remains the best available treatment of the episode. The quote, however, is from W. C. Sellar & R. Yeatman, 1066 and All That: a Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates (London 1930, many reprints), p. 6.

4. Depending on what you think was usual, of course; cf. Matthew Innes, “Property, Politics and the Problem of the Carolingian State” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 299-313.

5. A perspective that I admit starts with a straight reading of Einhard, Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, MGH (SRG) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1965), trans. D. Ganz in idem (ed.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2009), pp. 17-44, cap. 7.

6. Lothar’s perspective is obviously harder to get at than his brothers’, given the lack of an obviously partisan source such as they have in the forms of the Annals of St-Bertin and the Annals of Fulda, but Elina Screen, “The Importance of the Emperor: Lothar I and the Frankish civil war, 840-843” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 25-52, is a good attempt at balance. Other relevant references might be Warren Brown, Unjust Seizure: conflict, interest, and authority in an early medieval society (Ithaca NY 2001), which is a good account of the imposition of Carolingian rule in Bavaria and which I don’t cite half enough, and Innes, “Property, Politics and the Problem of the Carolingian State”, to which see my suggested addition here.

The Carolingian Frontier II: groups and identities on all the edges

Putting coins aside for at least one post, I return to the way I spent roughly this time last year, i.  at conferences and in particular at The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which I started writing about a couple of posts ago. Resuming our tale on the 5th July, had you been in the JCR TV Room of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge at 9 o’clock in the morning you would have found none other than me, leading off a session with a paper called “‘Completely Detached from the Kingdom of the Franks’? Political Identity in Catalonia in the Very Late Carolingian Era”. As you might expect, I don’t have notes on this,but I can give you the abstract and you can always ask for more.

The very last years of Carolingian rule in the West have been seen as decisive for the separation of the area that is now Catalonia from the larger West Frankish kingdom whence it had its origins as a political entity: between the sack of Barcelona 985 and the succession of King Hugh Capet in 987, the counties of the future Catalonia are held to have come to a collective realisation that they stood alone against the times in which they found themselves. Such a date is very late for the allegiance of any Carolingian periphery to the core, however: of what could such loyalties really consist? This paper explores the various forms of evidence that can be brought to bear on this question and concludes firstly that loyalty was strong enough that it could be exploited politically by counts and kings and their followers, but that its strength was too limited to assist in real crisis, and secondly that it was those crises, in 957 and in 985, that therefore broke the last ties to the Carolingians in Catalonia.

I have yet to work out what to do with this paper, which is more or less the latest instalment of some thoughts I’ve been having since midway through my doctorate, but I’m pretty sure it fitted the conference and hope it set things up well. But from there it was to Central Europe, Brittany, Burgundy and some other fiddly bits that might be either France or Germany depending on when you look, and back to Central Europe again. If I was an outlier, so was everyone! Writing this up, I realise that the crucial issues that joined us all up, for me, were one about group identity, how it was created and why it failed, and what the rôle of the frontier was in that. So if those interest you, read on! The papers broke down like this… Continue reading

Leeds 2012 Report 2

My notes from last year’s International Medieval Congress seem to be pretty good, but I’m disturbed by how little of what I apparently attended I recall in any detail without them. I suppose this is why we take notes, but looking back through them I can see several of the hares that I’ve been coursing through the last year’s thoughts visible here, and I feel as if I actually ought to be using these posts to acknowledge people whose thoughts I obviously soaked up without the care and attention to whose they were that perhaps I should have taken. Anyway, that is a long preamble to the second post from my backlog that will try and give some account of the research I saw being presented at that conference.

504. Politics of Territory I: perceptions and practices of space in Germany and France (c. 850-c. 1100)

The 10th July started for me with a pair of sessions coming out of a project that Jens Schneider introduced, Territorium, which I think could be sort of categorised as geopolitical philosophy, comparing and checking the ways that French and German scholarships think about the connections of territories to the state. For me the interesting thing here was how people would define their ‘territories’, especially since in the first session we seemed to be especially encouraged to consider where territories ended, that is, frontiers, always and forever an interest of mine. This comes through in my notes, from which I relearn the following.

  • Laurence Leleu, “Space, Territory and Border in Saxony”
    Saxony had been outside the Frankish kingdom at the beginning of Charlemagne’s reign, implying a linear border, then became a marca, a province inside the empire but whose character was special, implying a zone. The speaker thought that this zone’s edges were often conceptual compared to geographical features like the River Elbe, even when it wasn’t the border. Within this zone, there were internal divisions, counties and bishoprics and even peoples (according to Adam of Bremen), but they often had islets and exclaves, so, basically, it was complicated, and the classic difference between line and zone was here largely a difference of scale. I thought the last point was the take-away one, though I was struck by the geography versus theory one too.
  • Miriam Czock, “Representations of Swabia: boundaries, spatial organization and power”
    This paper attempted to apply concepts of space to ask more useful questions about what political identities were available to those who lived after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Swabia is interesting in this game because it’s a territory that defies traditional German historiography by not having a ‘root’ people or leader; Dr Czock argued that people’s connections were to the monastery of St Gallen, the local castle network and the fiscal property in the area. I recognise that I’d be vulnerable to this criticism myself, and perhaps that’s why I think of it, but this seems to me like what we can see from the landholding and trial records rather than what was necessarily most important; at the least, though, it gives us an alternative set of structures to test origin theories with.
  • Albrecht Brendler, “Space of Power in Early Medieval Provence”
    Provence emerged from the expulsion of the Muslim garrison at la Garde-Freinet in 903 in some confusion, explained Herr Brendler: the Muslims had been only one side in a many-faceted civil war and though there was a clear Count of Arles, William I, his territory included two other counties and several bishoprics of areas that had been pagi, but no metropolitan ones; William called himself a Marquis, but of which crown wasn’t completely clear though King Conrad I of Germany claimed it. It theoretically belonged to larger organisations and wasn’t quite one itself yet it emerged as one because its parts weren’t part of anything else. I may, in that last bit, be going beyond what Herr Brendler said but if so that’s because I could basically write the same of Catalonia. This is a very interesting parallel, which I don’t seem from my notes to have appreciated at all at the time.
  • Charles West, “Response”
    Here Charles tried to mix up categories by pointing out that power over space is still carried out by acting on people, so that the people and space distinction may not get us anything useful, but that if it does what we are usually seeing is a monastic concept of space, which may not be the general one, especially since several different concepts of space could operate at once. It’s important not to privilege the one we can most easily see.
  • I tried to argue in questions that the sources’ intent was really the best way to approach such issues of importance, a functionalist approach, which Dr Czock argued would miss larger-scale change. Ryan Lavelle pointed out that in UK terms a project like this would be an archæological one and wondered what mapping via GIS would contribute. I also wondered that, but in a rather more negative way; I couldn’t see what it would contribute that plotting things on paper wouldn’t make just as clear. In general good questions came out of this and I think everyone went away thinking.

This was probably particularly evident in how many of us came straight back after coffee for the second half!

604. Politics of Territory, II: perceptions and practices of space in Southern France (c. 750-c. 1200)

  • Adrien Bayard, “Fortifications and the Organisation of Power in Carolingian Aquitaine”
    This paper looked specifically at fortifications in the campaigns of King Pippin III by which Aquitaine was dragged more or less unwillingly to rejoin the kingdom of the Franks in the second half of the eighth century. Archaeology has shown a huge variety of sites in the area, ‘private refuges’, small hilltop forts, walled villages and big cities, some of which (like Bourges, notice the name) Pippin took by siege. The south was in general a zone of fortresses, even this early, unlike the north where palaces seem to have organised the territories (and Septimania where monasteries were key), and no matter what they were controlling, in terms of territory, service, renders and so on, a hilltop site seems always to have been the basis of lordly power in these zones.
  • Aurélien le Coq, “Reforming Church, Producing Territory: the second birth of the diocese of Die (c. 1000-c. 1200)”
    This paper was interesting in as much as it was chasing a ghost: the bishopric of Die is dissolved, and the extent of its medieval territory is unclear, though it was much larger than the modern province and seems to have included several exclaves. Over the eleventh century, during which time the bishops’ power was on the rise not least because of Bishop Hugh who became the papal legate to France under Pope Gregory VII, the county of Die seems to have sunk underneath the bishopric in people’s minds as the thing that defined the area. The counts wound up lords of only small parts of the area as the bishops profited from their increasingly international connections. (I have to admit that I wasn’t clear how they were profiting, exactly, but something seems to have brought about this change.) This however only lasted until the more powerful counts of Valence succeeded to the county of Die and their tame bishops started muscling in. M. le Coq saw this as an area where bishops were always in charge but which one might vary; I have to admit that again I wonder if ecclesiastical sources would show us enough of comital power to be sure of that, but I haven’t looked at the documents and M. le Coq has.
  • Steffen Patzold, “Some Reflections on Interregional Comparisons: France and Germany”
    Here Professor Patzold laid out some of the problems that arise with comparative projects like this: even though the team had picked peripheries that more or less match and scholars at similar career stages using similar questions, the sources vary considerably over the zones chosen and may still have been leading their conclusions. For example, with mostly non-royal charters in the south of France and far fewer and only royal ones from Saxony, we ineluctably have a middle-range perspective in the former and only a top-down one from the latter. But is the source difference itself a result of difference, or merely accident? On the other hand, because of the difference of languages, things that genuinely were similar between the two zones may be hard to recognise: is a vicarius a minister or were the two offices different across the language divide, and so on…
  • Discussion this time was less fruitful, I felt. People, including me, suggested various extra questions that might be bases for comparison, such as what use people had for the kings (this was me, based on the Königsfern idea that I took from Kalamazoo 2010), who appointed bishops and so on. Wendy Davies stressed that a comparison like this must rest on things that are similar otherwise it’s apples and oranges, but the various project members were keener on pointing out differences or reasons these questions wouldn’t work, and a particular boundary got set up around the project aims, the ideas of territory and space, over which I for one could not see. I realise that there is loads of work on space at the moment but when we’re talking about spaces of power, I agree with what Charles had said: spaces of power are spaces over which authority is claimed, and if no-one recognises it then those claims are empty. I don’t see how these spaces can exist except in the minds of the people in them, and the way we get at that is not by ignoring the dealings of those people in favour of deconceptualised mapping. That wasn’t what any of the speakers had been doing, either, but it seemed to be the platonic idea to which the discussion retreated as more traditional practitioners tried to make their favourite questions help.

Of course, sometimes such questions genuinely aren’t helpful. Even if they might be, they feel as if people are suggesting that if you’d only asked them first, they could have told you how to do your project much better! Nonetheless, this is supposed to be one of the things that presenting your work in public gets you, other ways to think about your problems, and I was quite surprised how reluctant some of the people in this comparative project were to try actual comparison, in their own terms or ours. I hope some day to organise conference sessions that actually demand this of speakers, I think it’s the only way forward in some areas and frontiers is definitely one of them. Well, anyway, then there was lunch and after that I returned very much to my own comfort zone, if I had even yet left it.

727. Producing, Keeping, and Reusing Documents: charters and cartularies from Northern Iberia, 9th-12th Century

  • Wendy Davies, “Keeping Charters Before Cartularies”
    Quite a lot of this paper was a summary of the patterns of the survival of the charter evidence from Northern Spain prior to 1000, and as such quite familiar to me. The points that did stand out for me were that enough charters were updated that it is clear that they could usually be got at; that they seem to have been stored in church treasuries quite often, but that that the marks that most bear on the dorses suggest some record of the records; and that laymen clearly kept documents too, as we have so many lay ones that survive to us even if through Church archives, so they presumably dealt with the same dilemmas of storage albeit on a smaller scale, unless the layman in question chose to keep them at a church.1
  • Leticia Agúndez San Miguel, “A Monastic Power in Reconstruction: the versatility of the past and the present time in the Becerro Gótico of Sahagún”
    It was quite strange to hear anyone other than Wendy talk about Sahagún, in fact, but this was a quite detailed codicological treatment of the monastery’s earliest cartulary, which the speaker thought had been put together as part of a project to get King Alfonso VI to confirm and add to the monastery’s property at a time when the Bishop of León and the Cluniac congregation were moving in on the old monastery’s area. This meant inventing a number of royal documents, but after a while the real ones they apparently did have got added in anyway, once the immediate need was past. Almost everything that got put in the cartulary was put there defensively, though, was the general conclusion, which is not how I have come to see some of my target archive’s early cartularies I must admit. I may have to rethink.
  • David Peterson, “The Becerro Gótico of San Millán: the reconstruction of a lost cartulary”
    This was a detective-work paper, trying to piece together from an archive loaded with forgeries and a later cartulary what was in the earliest cartulary which is now lost. It seems to have been available to a couple of historians shortly after the monastery was dissolved in 1835, but ‘seems’ is the operative word. From what can be reconstructed, it seems that the later cartulary was heavily selective, containing only two-thirds as many documents in rather nicer copies. The picture of the lost one that emerges is of a book that was compiled as sort of quire-length dossiers of documents bound together and then continuing to expand, some onto extra sheets, some into the next quire. The new cartulary rearranged much of this at the top level, the order of the dossiers, to serve in a dispute with Calahorra, and some of the initial quires of the Becerro Gótico also had their origins in disputes, this seems to be more and more what we find behind cartulary compilation these days, which may also explain why their arrangements sometimes don’t make much sense to us; firstly, we would probably have had to be there, but secondly, their production was probably often quite urgent and may have cut some corners… This was a very suggestive paper despite its micro-study premises, which is in many ways my favourite sort of paper and the kind I like to write myself, so I am suitably envious!
  • Discussion here was good, but perhaps only if you’re a charter geek; especially worth considering, though, was the role of script change in the compilation of these things. The two Becerros Goticos there above are so called because they were in Visigothic minuscule, which is, shall we say, an acquired faculty; at San Millán the replacement is called the Becerro Galecana, from its Frankish-style script. These things must also have affected the use of original documents, and the sources themselves tend to stress such issues when cartularies explain themselves at all, but we keep finding reasons the task was finally undertaken to be more immediate.2 There’s a tension here to work out with future cases.

Powered by tea, I now did something I’ve never before tried at Leeds, which was to start a timeslot in one session and dash to another after the paper I wanted to hear. I try not to do this, because it’s rude to the organisers and the speakers whom one ignores in the first session and not exactly helpful to the second session, but sometimes one is just caught between senses of obligation and the proximity of the sessions makes it possible, and when the first session also has one of its speakers drop out, the temptation just gets too much. It seems best to combine the reports because they were experienced as one block, so, here goes.

808. Political Rupture in the Early Middle Ages & 809. Cultural Memory, III: Inclusion and Exclusion (i)

  • Geoffrey Koziol, “Principles Know No Law: justifying insurgency after the Carolingians – Boso, Robert of Neustria, and the Saxons”
    It was a definite bonus of last year’s Leeds that Geoff Koziol was present, enlivening many a discussion and one of the people out there most energetically interested in the late- and post-Carolingian era where my own work resides. At the time I write this I very lately finished properly reading his first book and I really enjoyed it, not something I would say of every history book I read.3 Reactions to this paper exist that are less enthusiastic, however, and although its general suggestion, worked through rebellions against kings of 879, 923 and 1073, that those raising rebellion rarely actually addressed or raised specifics in their propaganda but instead asserted big moral imperatives, was reasonable, there was room for counter-examples or arguments that like and like had not been compared here. Nonetheless, the comparative range and conceptual power was as engaging as Geoff’s stuff usually is and I was glad I’d heard it, even if I promptly ran away…
  • Clemens Gantner, “The Popes and their Frankish Others in the 8th Century”
    The timing worked out just right and I got to hear all of this paper, which was looking at the extent to which the diplomatic contacts between popes and Franks of this period indicated that the popes saw Franks as a gens, and therefore not the same group as themselves. The Franks were evidently easier to define than the Byzantines (obviously not Romans any more, but not ‘Greeks’ till the ninth century) or the Muslims (many many ethnonyms), not least as they worked the ‘gentile’ concept quite hard themselves at times, but anyway, the eighth-century popes seem to have never reckoned the Franks as other than foreigners.
  • Mayke de Jong, “The Temptations of a Foreign Past: the early medieval West and alterity”
    I don’t like the word `alterity’, as is well-established, so it was nice to find that neither does Professor de Jong, though I don’t like it mainly because `otherness’ would plainly do; Prof. de Jong was arguing for its removal from our work as a theme on higher grounds, though, that it makes the period seem strange, foreign, easy to dismiss and incomprehensible. As Prof. de Jong observed, assuming we don’t rule out the idea that things change for the better completely, there must be a worse `before’ and a better `after’ when this happens, but this is no reason to let other people stick this onto us.4 Likewise, any effort to define ourselves involves defining what we are not but for Prof. de Jong, it’s important for early medievalists to throw bridges across the ensuing gap and storm it, resetting connections that others might prefer to ignore.5
  • The most interesting question here was one that Clemens had to face, of whether there was in fact a neutral way to talk of another political unit’s people in this period. Clemens thought that the fact that the way the popes conceptualised Franks was not the same as the way in which they did other Others made his conclusions valid, but Walter Pohl floated the much more unsettling answer that if a way of describing a group was neutral this would probably not be clear to us now!

I suppose that as Paul Edward Dutton said at a different conference, “The best we can hope for is to be wrong in new ways”, which still sounds like a lot of fun to me.


1. Since this paper was given, of course, these issues are now given what is really the full treatment in Warren C. Brown, Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes & Adam J. Kosto (edd.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2013), the long-awaited publication of work from the Lay Archives Project for which I was once a data monkey. I will write more on that in due course, when I’ve actually read the volume, which is not yet though it is one of the very very few academic books I bought as soon as it came out at full price. (Quite why, I’m not sure, given I will very shortly be able to buy it cheaper at Leeds and haven’t used it yet, but obviously I meant to.) Anyway, leaving that aside, even before that volume emerged one could find related concerns being raised in Warren Brown, “When Documents Are Destroyed or Lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366 and Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, and it’s obviously no accident that they were in the Lay Archives Project too.

2. The text of standard resort here is of course Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: memory and oblivion at the end of the first millennium (Princeton 1994), which is still excellent, but although it will be a long time before its general case doesn’t stand up, exceptions to it do keep emerging. One can get some other perspectives from Olivier Guyotjeannin, Laurent Morelle & Michel Parisse (edd.), Les Cartulaires : Actes de la Table Ronde organisée par l’École Nationale des Chartes et le G. D. R. 121 du C. N. R. S. (Paris, 5-7 décembre 1991), Mémoires et Documents de l’École des Chartes 39 (Paris 1993) and Adam J. Kosto & Anders Winroth (edd.), Charters, Cartularies and Archives: the preservation and transmission of documents in the medieval west. Proceedings of a Colloquium of the Commission Internationale de Diplomatique (Princeton and New York, 16-18 September 1999), Papers in Mediaeval Studies 17 (Toronto 2002).

3. G. Koziol, Begging Pardon and Favor: ritual and political order in early medieval France (Ithaca 1992).

4. This is well set-out in Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), which I cite much more than my mean review of it would make one think I would, though I stand by that in as much as this issue is well set-out several times over…

5. And in fact I read, only a day before writing this, another attack on the same issue by no less than Jinty Nelson, that being Janet L. Nelson, “Liturgy or Law: misconceived alternatives?” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Nelson & David Pelteret, Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald, Studies in Early Medieval Britain (Farnham 2009), pp. 433-447, who argues that both sides of the line lose something by not crossing it.

Charlemagne’s ‘Jihad’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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