Louis the Pious’ parenting problems

Mayke de Jong’s The Penitential State: Authority and Atonement in the Age of Louis the Pious, 814-840, which I am gradually working my way through, is Mayke’s sustained discussion of theories about Louis’ reign, theology and political discourse which she says she’s 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 didn’t come much earlier, and Louis’ problems in the 830s weren’t 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 (Louis’s 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 Bernard’s death as one of the many offences that made him unfit to rule.

But the reason why Bernard’s punishment had such long-term repercussions is best seen in a comparison with the one family revolt that his father Charlemagne experienced. In 792, Charlemagne’s 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 weren’t. 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: he’d similarly put his cousin Tassilo permanently into a monastery in 788, when taking over Bavaria. I don’t think it’s coincidence that none of Charlemagne’s 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.


8 thoughts on “Louis the Pious’ parenting problems

  1. Just a small thing:

    Louis had to re-divide the empire in the 820s because a new son was born. Sure, he maybe could have expected the elder three to be displeased, but what else could he have done? And then he used re-re-dividing as a way to punish his sons for the rebellions they already had undertaken as the end result of earlier developments.

    Mayke de Jong’s point, though, is not about how to handle rebellions and why they happened. It’s really about what Louis and others at his time thought about public penance as a way to make peace during turbulent times. She wants us to see Louis’ performance of penance not as a sign of weakness, but rather as the king doing what he should have done for the benefit of his soul and his subjects.

    And now, on to Courtney Booker’s new book on Louis!


  2. Charlemagne had some problems with sons & relatives as well (Pippin the Hunchback, Tassilo) but except for Louis none outlived him. Louis himself lived until 840 and was outlived by three of his four sons – three of which were adults for decades until papa died. The problem was not that Louis was a wimp who could not control his family; it was that he was an autocratic early medieval father who tried to control all his sons until the moment he died. Some parenting problems..


    • It gives one to wonder who does better than Louis. Charlemagne seems to keep his children happy, apart from the disinherited ones. Hartmann argues that Louis the German succeeds where his father failed, in that his children rebel, but are always quelled without being too severely punished and cooperate with each other or father when something truly big is at stake, such as fighting Charles the Bald. Charles does all right with his children, if not perhaps his kingdom…

      But now I wonder what Prof. de Jong envisages as an alternative for Louis. Actually dividing the empire during his lifetime? Or was there a third way somewhere in there?


  3. Mayke – I didn’t mean to imply Louis was a wimp and I think your book gives a very good impression of his autocratic treatment of his sons. But I think it also hints that Charlemagne treated Louis equally autocratically. We don’t really have the sources to know how Charlemagne treated Charles the Younger and Pippin of Italy, but Pippin the Hunchback’s revolt suggests that all Charlemagne’s sons were treated fairly autocratically as well. So my question is why there were fewer revolts under Charlemagne? After all, he had three adult sons for 15+ years as well (from c 794 when Louis married to the death of Pippin in 810).

    My argument would be that knowing the fates of Tassilo and Pippin the Hunchback made rebelling too high a risk for Charlemagne’s other sons. On the other hand, the revulsion that Louis’ killing of Bernard aroused severely limited how he could punish his sons in the future, so that he was trying to maintain autocratic control of his sons without the range of sanctions that Charlemagne had.

    Jon – one obvious response to the claim that other Carolingian rulers did better (which Mayke touches on at the end of Penitential State) is that the Carolingian political class were so traumatised by Louis’ deposition that no-one was prepared to push rebellion that far again, so subsequent regal fathers had an easier time. I’ve also discussed before whether the whole subsequent inconclusive nature of Carolingian conflicts isn’t tied up with 818 making killing relatives unacceptable.

    As for Charles the Bald doing all right with his children, Jinty Nelson (A tale of two princes, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 10 (1988)) reckons he deliberately manipulated the legal process in order to blind his son Carloman in 873 and got away without that much criticism, which may just indicate that he was more sneakily cunning than Louis.


    • I’d forgotten about the blinding of 873, which just goes to show I need to read more of what I’ve already read again as well as what I need still to read. And of course one of his other sons was Darwinially stupid so may not have presented too much of a threat. But I’d hazard that Charles needed to be more sneakily cunning than Louis precisely because he was in no position to be autocratic for any length of time, as witness the various revolts, invitations to relatives, etc. that occurred when he tried a hard line.


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