Mayke de Jongs The Penitential State: Authority and Atonement in the Age of Louis the Pious, 814-840, which I am gradually working my way through, is Maykes sustained discussion of theories about Louis reign, theology and political discourse which she says shes been developing for over 20 years. But chapter 1 also provides a useful summary of the events of Louis the Pious reign, which brings out the soap opera aspects of his ongoing struggles with his sons from 829 onwards.
After a century or more in which Louis the Pious has been seen as an archetypal weak king, in the last decades there has been a lot of debate over him (in which Mayke has played a determined role). One of the key arguments for those attempting to refute the idea of weakness is pointing out how frequently rulers struggled with rebellious adult sons. On this view, a ruler with three adult sons (as Louis had in the 830s) was bound to have trouble. But as I looked at the events again, I found myself wondering if the real crunch point didnt come much earlier, and Louis problems in the 830s werent just the same pattern repeating itself.
I think there is a decent case for seeing Louis real problems as starting in 817/818. The Ordinatio imperii of 817 has traditionally been seen as problematic because it produced a succession plan for the empire at such an early stage of Louis the Pious reign (before one of his four sons had been born). But more significant, I would argue, is that it made no mention of Bernard of Italy (Louiss nephew), instead leaving Italy to Louis eldest son Lothar I. As a result, Bernard, fearing his sons would be disinherited, revolted.
The recurrent theme of Louis later years was that planned divisions of the empire he made led to revolts by those of his sons he had disappointed. This, I would argue, is behaviour that could be expected. It is unrealistic for a parent to deprive a son of part of an inheritance in favour of another and not expect a bad reaction. In the same way, excluding Bernard was asking for trouble.
The subsequent events are also revealing. Louis the Pious put down the revolt and captured Bernard. He then blinded him, a mutilation from which Bernard died. It is clear that Louis over-reacted here. Five years later, at Attigny in 822 he did public penance for the death of Bernard. However much Mayke sees Louis as in control of his own penance and the situation, he had put himself firmly in the wrong. The bishops who judged him in 833 raised Bernards death as one of the many offences that made him unfit to rule.
But the reason why Bernards punishment had such long-term repercussions is best seen in a comparison with the one family revolt that his father Charlemagne experienced. In 792, Charlemagnes eldest son Pippin (aka Pippin the Hunchback) revolted. Jinty Nelson has argued that this was because Pippin was being edged out of a future division of the kingdom by his stepmother Fastrada. The parallels seem plain here, but the consequences werent. Pippin was not killed, but tonsured and put in a monastery: he died there nearly twenty years later.
Charlemagne had form for this kind of behaviour: hed similarly put his cousin Tassilo permanently into a monastery in 788, when taking over Bavaria. I dont think its coincidence that none of Charlemagnes other sons revolted after Pippin. They had too much to lose by doing so. In contrast, I would argue that Louis was unable to deal effectively with his sons after their revolts because of Bernard. Having over-reacted once, he could not again be seen as too harsh. Instead, he combined a determination to divide and re-divide the kingdom, which led to revolt, with recurrent forgiveness for his rebellious sons, thus providing no incentive for loyalty.
In terms of Carolingian standards of parenting, Charlemagne looks in control: stern action which carefully avoided the appearance of brutality to contemporaries. Louis, in contrast, seems all over the place, unable to deal effectively with the predictable consequences of his behaviour. Louis cannot simply be seen as too merciful (as in the traditional narrative), but it would not surprise any modern parenting guru that his uneasy moves between harshness and leniency were unsuccessful in producing family harmony.