Charters as a political language

A few years ago, I remember Charlie Insley telling me that “charters were the new black”. I’m not sure I was convinced at the time, but there does seem to be an increasing interest in the use of charters for understanding the ideology of power. A couple of seminars at the IHR earlier this year both looked at the charters of particular rulers and I want to bring them together and see if the result tells us anything wider about the topic.

First of all, Kathryn Dutton from Manchester was talking about “Countship: concept and practice in twelfth-century Anjou”. Kathryn is at the start of a project examining non-royal power in twelfth-century France, which will compare the ideology of three territorial principalities: Greater Anjou, Brittany and Aquitaine. Her paper was looking at Geoffrey V of Anjou, on whom she’d written her thesis.

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Enamel from Geoffrey’s tomb at Le Mans

Geoffrey married the Empress Matilda of England, and was the father of Henry II, but his most important family connection for propaganda purposes seemed to be that his father, Fulk V of Anjou, became king of Jerusalem, after marrying Queen Melisande. (It’s only as I come to write up it that it occurs to me it’s unusual to become a ruler of your father’s previous territory while your father’s still alive).

Kathryn was talking about a variety of methods, charter and non-charter that Geoffrey used to enhance his status. One was the use of relics and physical symbols: one of his ancestors, Fulk III had brought back a fragment of the True Cross from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and gifted it to St-Laud of Angers. Geoffrey was the abbot of St-Laud, and it’s possible that he wore the reliquary containing it. Fulk V sent back from the east an ivory tau-staff given to him by the wazir of Egypt, which Geoffrey may have used for adventus ceremonies.

Geoffrey never went on pilgrimage or crusade himself (though he may have considered doing so), but he probably used relics and his charters for Anjou often refer to him as “son of the King of Jerusalem”. In contrast, his charters in Normandy, which he conquered in 1144, don’t use this expression. Several of his charters refer to his military successes, e.g. his capture of Gerald of Montreuil-Bellay after a lengthy siege in 1151. He then seems to have led Gerald and his family in chains in something of a triumph, giving charters at a number of places to celebrate this victory. This caused outrage at the Capetian court, especially when Geoffrey took Gerald as a prisoner to Paris. Bernard of Clairvaux threatened him with excommunication and prophesied his imminent death (which indeed happened).

Charters, then, were only one part of Geoffrey’s projection of power, though obviously an important one. In contrast, Roberta Cimino from St Andrews, a couple of months later focused specifically on charters, in a paper entitled “The queen’s title in Italian diplomas (9th-10th centuries)”. Roberta was looking at one particular title, that of “consors regni”, implying the sharer of an empire, which was used in mid-ninth to mid-tenth century Italian royal diplomas but rarely elsewhere. “Consors imperii” was a title first used in the late Roman empire for the ruler and his heir, and it was revived for this purpose at the start of the ninth century, in texts such as Einhard’s Vita Karoli or the Royal Frankish Annals. From the mid-ninth century it started to be used for the king or emperor’s wife.

There’s been a lot of discussion about why the meaning of the term shifted, with some researchers, such as Carlo Guido Mor, seeing the use of title as reflecting the existence of a specific institution of co-regency, and others, such as Paolo Delogu seeing it as an honorific title, introduced into Carolingian diplomatics from literature. Roberta was arguing that the title didn’t have a fixed meaning, but was instead a fluid instrument, used in some, but not all charters mentioning the queen. Diplomas, she argued, were performances in total and all the elements contributed to them.

For example, although the title was used for Empress Ermengarde (wife of Lothar I) in 848, it didn’t appear again until the 860s, when it started to be used for Angilberga, the wife of Louis II. Even then, it wasn’t used in all the charters which mention her. Roberta was arguing that Louis’s chancery practice changed after his expedition to south Italy in 866, both because he had a very limited chancery staff and because he was concerned to promote his imperial authority. There was an orchestrated campaign of imperial propaganda which included solemn titles for the queen. Very unusually, there are also silver deniers from 871-872 which have Angilberga’s name on the reverse.

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Roberta also looked at the use of “consors imperii” for Ageltrude, the wife of Guy of Spoleto. Guy was the first non-Carolingian emperor, and had a very strong imperial ideology. Ageltrude is not always given the title “consors imperii,” but she is in two clusters of charters: four from 891, issued on her imperial coronation and two from 894, at a time when Guy was experiencing political problems. The properties being given to Ageltrude at that point had previous associations with Carolingian women. Overall, the title is applied to Ageltrude only when she’s recipient of properties associated with the Carolingians.

Roberta then finished with a diploma from 948, in which “consors imperii” was used to demonstrate the relationship between two men: a diploma of Lothar II of Italy calls Berengar of Ivrea, the effective ruler of Italy, “summus consors regni”, showing the negotiation of power between them.

Roberta’s examples showed the flexibility of the term, suggesting it was not referring to an institution, but the combination of the two papers gets us back to the thorny question of authors and audiences of charters as well. On the one hand, there are historians like Geoff Koziol arguing that every charter is a carefully calibrated demonstration of royal authority; on the other hand, Jon Jarrett is worrying about whether these processes (and the charters themselves) are being driven by granters or recipients: are the different titles etc used just because different recipients are responsible for drawing up the diplomas?

But there’s another issue with audiences: should we be talking about the audience for a charter or for charters? If the audience for a charter is essentially one-off (those present at a particular solemn occasion, plus later readers) then why don’t all charters aim for maximum impressiveness? If this is a ruler’s big chance to show how impressive he/she is, surely they should go for broke every time? Now possibly they don’t always have the parchment and high-quality scribes available to produce a first-class looking diploma, but terms like “consors regni” are cheap and easy to add. And yet they don’t get added automatically to every charter, just as Geoffrey V doesn’t always call himself the son of the king of Jerusalem.

I think this means that if we’re going to see charters as a language deliberately controlled by the granters, we’re going to have to presume a common audience for a whole sequence of charters, not just one. Language gets dulled by repetition, and using every possible title in every charter is the charter diplomatic equivalent of shouting all the time. Maybe we need to turn this analysis of the political language of charters round and ask why some phrases don’t get used all the time and what that may tell us about the audiences for different charters of the same ruler.

The state they were in

My next catch-up session on IHR seminars from earlier this year discusses a couple of papers about early medieval state formation. First up was Marie Legendre in February on “Not Byzantine nor Islamic? The Duke of the Thebaid and the formation of the Umayyad State”. This has recently won the Pollard Prize for best presentation at an IHR seminar by a postgraduate/recent PhD, and so will be published in Historical Research. I’m therefore not going to say much about the detail, especially since there was a lot of it, and it’s a long way from my field of expertise, as this map will show:

Dioecesis_Aegypti_400_AD

Map of the administrative divisions of Egypt in 400 AD. The Thebaid is the one at the bottom.

Marie was focusing on the southern part of Egypt in the second half of the seventh century, after its conquest by ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in 639-642, and trying to answer the question of whether there was a state there before the reign of Abd-al-Malik in the late seventh century. She was arguing that the framework of continuity versus change wasn’t really useful, because it tended to separate Byzantine from Islamic aspects and some things changed, while others didn’t. Fred Donner’s influential concept of the state, as expressed in “The Formation of the Islamic State,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 106 (1986), 283-296, also doesn’t really fit this world.

Instead, a complex system of overlapping authorities is visible. This included successors to the Byzantine administration of the pagarchs and their superior, the Duke of the Thebaid (the duke governed the whole province, with both civil and military authority). But these acted alongside the Amir of Hermopolis, and moagaritai are also present, who look like soldiers.

There were around eight dukes of the Thebaid, between the Arab conquest and 710, after which they are no longer visible. Some of the later ones have Arab names and some have the title of both duke and amir, but since some locals were also adopting Arab names, we can’t always be sure whether the dukes were locals or not. The administrative situation was very complicated: although the province of the Thebaid was merged with Arcadia under Duke Jordanes in the 660s or 670s, there seem still to have been two provincial systems operating in parallel, and two parallel hierarchies, one under the duke and one under a governor.

Changes are gradually visible however, such as fiscal documents being written in Coptic; from about 706, numerous epikeimenoi (overseers) can be seen in administrative roles, all with Arab names, dealing with matters previously deal with by dukes. By 714 the pagarchies were also being replaced, by districts called kura, whose administrators had Arabic names and who issued documents in Coptic, Arabic or bilingual Greek/Arabic. Marie thought the dukes were becoming unnecessary as links between the governor and the pagarchs, and they cease to be visible.

Marie concluded with reference to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory that the successful state renders its formative phase forgettable, since the elite comes from a social order they have to destroy. The duke of Thebaid had an important role in the change from Byzantine to Islamic order, but despite the continuous presence of such a figure, he can’t be seen as a Byzantine official, but instead one of the main actors in forming an Islamic hierarchy.

It’s these insights that link to the paper a few weeks later by George Molyneaux on “The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century”. I see that Jon Jarrett has already given a fairly detailed write-up of what sounds like a similar paper George gave at Oxford a year previously, so those who want details of George’s arguments should probably start there.

George was essentially asking the question of how you get from point A in England (900, when there’s no political unit corresponding to the “kingdom of the English”) to point B (the mid-eleventh century when the entry for 1017 in version C and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle say that Cnut (Canute) “obtained all the kingdom of the English [eallon Angelcynnes ryce]”. The period between the reign of Alfred (871-899) and 1066 tends to be taken as one block, but George is trying to work out when particular “state” developments actually take place, and seeing more of them occurring in the third-quarter of the tenth century rather than earlier. Jon’s talked about the idea of intensification of the power of kings (and also whether it’s a Good Thing), so I want to be a bit more basic and go back to the evidence that George was using.

Speaking as a non-specialist, he did seem to be making two very important points. One was that the control of coinage is much tighter from the 970s onwards: there’s a uniform design and relatively stable weights. The second is that there is legislation from the first half of the tenth century to compare with that from later in the tenth century and it very rarely talks about hundreds and wapentakes in the places it should do (e.g. when witnessing).

In other words, with both the coins and the hundreds as administrative units, we don’t just have a lack of evidence from the previous period; we have some evidence of a different social situation. Therefore, arguing that there were hundreds (or areas which corresponded to later hundreds) before the mid-tenth century doesn’t in itself wreck George’s argument. You’d have at least to add in a kind of “documentary mutation” section to the argument in which later tenth-century kings suddenly feel a new need to discuss administrative structures which were too obvious to be worth mentioning before.

I was less convinced by George’s argument that the (temporary) cessation of hostilities with the Vikings and attempts to conquer Britain were the reason that these changes happened in the later tenth century rather than the first half of it. As Charlemagne’s empire shows, you can have continual warfare and considerable legal/economic/governmental developments happening at the same time. But although there were a lot of people disagreeing with George in the discussions afterwards, I don’t think anyone came up with convincing proofs about why most of the English administrative structures had to exist much earlier. (The nearest was Stephen Baxter saying Patrick Wormald had done unpublished work showing sureties being taken from local communities in the late ninth century. I’m afraid I can’t give more details than that, being pretty ignorant about Anglo-Saxon law generally).

George is now writing the book of this argument, so anyone who wants the gory details should probably wait and find them there. But it was only when I came to write up his paper that it abruptly connected in my mind with Marie’s. What have we got here again, but the forgettable (if not actively forgotten) formative stage of the successful state? In an early medieval culture that venerates custom and fears novelty, of course the state is going to be made to appear as traditional as possible by reusing existing structures. We also know that the later tenth century was a hotbed of ideological propaganda, creating the idea of an English state. So we’re probably not going to be able to find its origins entirely accurately, but we need to be quite wary of later claims that it had existed for centuries.

Secondly, Marie’s paper suggests that a third alternative to (abrupt) change or continuity is continual small change – the Thebaid in the 710s was very different from the 640s, but it’s hard to see any obvious single breakpoints. The idea of the “precocious” English state (which Susan Reynolds was objecting to) tends to imply an Alfredian Big Bang and then just a smooth motoring on for another 150 years. But if we look at the Carolingians, we see another state that’s developing new institutions over at least fifty years, if not a century. Charlemagne’s first really big reform capitulary (the Admonitio generalis) comes twenty years into his reign, and Louis still changing things seventy years after his grandfather first became king. If you have some kind of partial ratchet effect, in which developments that make kings more powerful don’t voluntarily get reversed by them, then you don’t need very many small steps to get a considerably more powerful state. The seventh-century Islamic world wouldn’t be my first point of comparison for what happens in late Anglo-Saxon England, but it can still get us thinking more creatively about how and when administrative structures develop.

Carolingian Thought for the Day

In February, the IHR Earlier Medieval Seminar heard Zubin Mistry from UCL talk about “Thinking about abortion under the Carolingians”. As Zubin explained himself, his recently finished PhD had been about perceptions of abortion in the sixth to ninth centuries, rather than the practice of abortion, and his talk focused on the texts that Carolingian thinkers had and how they used them.

Zubin started with the Collatio Alexandri et Dindimi, a text which I hadn’t come across before. This is a fourth or fifth century text which purports to be the correspondence between Alexander the Great and the Brahmin sage Dindimus. There’s disagreement about who wrote it and why: is it an attack on the memory of Alexander written by Christians of Cynics? Or is it instead intended as a parody of (Christian) asceticism? The text was known to Alcuin and there are surviving ninth century copies. It includes a passage (11-7) saying that one should not “drink up abortions” and complaining about the misdirection of sexual activity towards lust and away from love of offspring, inflicting murder and depriving God of his due.

The example of this text reminds us that eighth and ninth century thinkers had access to a large mass of old materials about abortion, including non-Christian material, such as Pliny the Elder and Lucretius’s De rerum naturae. They also had access to accounts in more unexpected places. Zubin highlighted a couple of creepy mentions of abortion in hagiography: St Germanus of Paris, in Venantius Fortunatus’ life of him has the foetal Germanus preventing his mother aborting him, while in some early Latin lives of Bridget of Kildare Bridget blesses a nun who has (illicitly) conceived and the foetus disappears.

Zubin’s emphasis in the paper was on how Carolingian readers read the earlier texts they had on a topic that was both morally problematic in theory (lurking somewhere on a spectrum between preventing conception and infanticide) and problematic in terms of practical handling (with issues about culpability and ambiguity about the moment when life started). There was no specialised discourse on abortion in the early Middle Ages, with earlier references strewn across a range of sources.

What Zubin showed happening was what I’ve talked about myself in other moral contexts: Carolingian authors actively assembling a mish-mash of fossilised texts to produce differing results. I’ve talked before about the Carolingian use of canons as Lego bricks, but the complication is that authors don’t always have the same set of bricks. For example, Zubin mentioned canon 21 of the Council of Ancyra 314 which discussed abortion in the context of fornicating women who then kill their offspring, with a penance of 10 years. In most of the canonical collections, this is the only canon dealing with abortion. The text isn’t an exact translation of the Greek, and there’s also a version transmitted via Martin of Braga appearing in some late Carolingian collections which adds in a condemnation for contraception along with abortion and infanticide.

Zubin then discussed the various early medieval penitentials, which vary between themselves and in some cases have varied penalties depending on the age of the foetus. Some go for 2 stages, before and after 40 days, and one (the Paenitentiale Pseudo-Theodori) for three: before and after 40 days and “after animated” (postquam animatus). Zubin was cautioning that we can’t necessarily connect such decisions up to Carolingian embryological theory, especially since it may refer to days after intercourse. He also noted that several of the penitentials see a difference between those aborting foetuses because of poverty and fornicating women who are doing this. (We did not learn the Latin for “slutty slut”, but that’s obviously the implication of such texts).

Zubin also argued that although theologians writing on the history of abortion have tended to see the early ninth century condemnations of penitentials (by the Council of Chalons-sur-Saone 813, Theodulf of Orléans etc) as a key moment in changing attitudes to abortion, it’s possible to overstate the hostility to penitentials. Later in the ninth century the same kind of responses to abortions are made, but on a supposedly more authoritative basis, e.g. Hrabanus Maurus going back to the Council of Ancyra, along with a couple of Spanish canons on abortion. Hrabanus, in a letter to the chorepiscopus Reginbald in 845×852 also quotes the Council of Ancyra in response to a question about infants who had been found dead in bed next to their parents. Even though the canon discussed deliberate infanticide after fornication, it was still thought to be relevant to a case of possibly deliberate overlaying by a married couple, with Reginbald being expected to investigate the exact circumstances.

Hrabanus Maurus exemplified one of Zubin’s key points: there was a negotiation between authoritative works and practical works – the key point was what was useful. This is even more visible in Regino of Prum’s handbook, which is a kind of summa of Carolingian handling of abortion including earlier penitential materials, canons, a call to adulterous women to leave her child at the doors of the church rather than commit infanticide and a canon that says attempts to prevent contraception should be regarded as murder. All of these canons were pick and mix, according to the prudential judgement of the user of the handbook.

I’ve written before about the idea of Carolingian authorityness and I discussed that with Zubin afterwards, but as well as providing an interesting case study of this, Zubin’s paper also gave some ideas of why that fast and loose attitude towards texts developed. Priests and bishops were supposed to administer penance with discretion: you take advisory texts and you then adapt them to specific circumstances. What we have here is canons as sentencing guidelines, not laws and if Carolingian clerics, from the humblest upwards, become used to doing that with canons as well, it’s not surprising that they’re not prone to take them as fixed texts in other circumstances. In my continuing efforts to look at how canons and canon law worked, I need to think more carefully about the different uses to which the same texts might be put and the effects this had on how they were regarded.

Late antique law and the Italian wind tunnel

I seem to have been going to a lot of papers this year about post-Carolingian Italy, and here I want to discuss a couple more of them: Conrad Leyser speaking at CLANS in February on “The Donatist Controversy, 250-1150: Purity, Memory and Priestly Office in the Latin West” and Simon Corcoran speaking at the IHR Earlier Medieval Seminar in June about “How Not To Make a Law-Code: Forging the Justinian Code in the Early Middle Ages”. I’ll have more to say about Conrad’s paper, partly because Simon’s, although very interesting, was focused on quite technical issues about legal sources that I’m not sure my notes are adequate to explain correctly. But they did connect together in my mind in ways that are fruitful for my current interest in the development of legal practice in the early Middle Ages.

Conrad, as usual, was making some very wide-ranging arguments about changes in the church. Indeed, although his title suggested he was covering 900 years of history, he even brought the topic right up to date by arguing for ex-Pope Benedict XVI’s recent conversion to Donatism. By resigning because of his incapacity, Benedict implicitly accepted that the priest’s personal condition could affect his ability to administer the sacraments. Conrad was interested in when the papacy became seen as an office in this way, one that one could leave, and he wanted to connect this to new research about the early church and the Roman state.

In particular, he started with a typical Conrad inversion: that the earlier Middle Ages are often seen as a time of the victory of the ‘private’ over the ‘public’, when the Roman ideas of commonwealth and state are replaced by ‘private’ rights and the usurpation of state power. But new research (Conrad mentioned work by Kate Cooper, Fergus Miller and Caroline Humfress), is suggesting a far more ‘minimal’ Roman state, a “thin-crust state” in which the emperor is making as little policy as possible, legislation is overwhelmingly reactive and most communities settle their own disputes, because appeals are very expensive. Conrad was also arguing for a minimalist view of the early church, drawing both on old studies by Rudolf Sohm and recent work by Gary Macy to argue that churches were still being organised on a household basis as late as the twelfth century, and it was only then that a truly hierarchical church developed. In other words, in the Middle Ages there isn’t a falling away from the public authority of the Roman state, but an attempt by the church to move from the private Roman empire towards a new idea of the “public”. Conrad thinks that this had happened by the eleventh century (even if he’s sceptical about the Feudal Revolution).

The main part of Conrad’s talk focused on the tenth and eleventh centuries; I commented later that this was a history of the early medieval church with the Carolingians left out, which he more or less accepted. He sees the origins of church reform in the post-Carolingian Italian world, when churchmen there, seeing that the Carolingian empire is over and that they are on their own, go back as a conscious act of memory to the previous post-imperial period, that of late antiquity, and draw on those texts. This triggers the development of the church as a trans-regional corporation in the eleventh century, with a new criterion for who can be a priest: that he mustn’t have a family.

And the particular significance of Italy is that clerics there are drawing on texts that haven’t come via the Carolingian reform movement. That’s one of the key points of detail that Conrad brought up, referring to what he called the “Italian wind tunnel”; texts from fourth and fifth-century North Africa (such as copies of Cyprian) which go to southern Italy when the Vandals come and reappear in Italy between the ninth and the eleventh century without much mediation. For example, he was arguing that this was the case for the Collectio Avellana. Conrad also pointed out other manuscripts with a specifically Italian background that were used by reformers such as Peter Damien and his opponent Humbert of Silva Candida. These included the works of Auxilius, a defender of Pope Formosus and Vallicellian Tome XVIII, which is a canon law miscellany (though the latter also included Pseudo-Isidore, showing that there was some Carolingian influence).

It’s at this point that the intersection with Simon’s paper comes in. The main aim of Simon’s talk was to discuss (and prove incorrect) the recent claim by Laurent Waelkens that the first thirteen sections of the Justinian Code were only added to it later. But Simon also talked more generally about the reception of the Justinian Code in the early medieval West and showed that there were a number of different copies of it floating around in Italy (such as the one glossed in the seventh century by the Summa Perusina), as well as assorted epitomes. And he also explained how the text of the Code was reconstructed relatively quickly in the eleventh century by communities of Italian lawyers, who expanded selections of the Code into a standardised Vulgate text by the early twelfth century.

I’d heard about a bit about this process before via Charles Radding; one of the points that got raised in questions was the possibility that the reason the Code got recovered in such a consistent but intermittent way was that exemplars were not always available or even that they were only available for a price, and thus a process intended to get access to a particular key section eventually ended up recreating the whole. (This seemed an oddly familiar situation to people like me who’ve sometimes inadvertently ended up with the whole of a book by photocopying extracts over time). But what particularly interested me was Simon’s comment on how consistent this reconstruction was (contrary to Waelkens’ idea that this ‘reconstruction’ involved some effective creation of new material in Book 1). Unlike the Carolingian period, with its notorious forging of canons and general willingness to muck around with texts, this looks like fairly accurate copying, and Simon suggested that this was because there was a body of people doing such reconstruction: these were working texts and you couldn’t just pull your own version out of thin air.

I want to combine that insight with Conrad’s ideas (following R.I. Moore) about the key roles of crowds: what changes in the ‘Gregorian’ reform movement is the combination of canon law and crowds, with relatively obscure points of canon law being argued in the streets of Italian cities. Moore’s argued this for Milan and Florence in the 1050s; Conrad wants to see it present already in the Synod of the Corpse in 897. If he’s right about that (and I need to look in detail at the evidence, which I don’t know at all well), that is a significant change from the 860s. What I think we may be seeing is a process of the creation of a fixed corpus of church law with a group of rival specialist interpreters. And it’s only some way through this process that it’s safe to let “the crowd” near such matters.

I’ve argued before that Carolingian reformers became sceptical and disillusioned about lay reading and interpretation of the Bible after the civil wars of the early 840s. We also know that in the second half of the ninth century Frankish laymen were using papal letters to evade incest prohibitions. I think that we can see the use of canons for legal argument developing very rapidly in the ninth century: compare the initial deposition of Ebbo of Rheims, which doesn’t cite canon law at all, with later discussions of it. I wonder if it’s only once you’ve got canons in the process of becoming canon law (a fixed body of stable texts with agreed rules for how such texts can be used) that you can let laypeople anywhere near them without risking this blowing up in your face. And that’s part of the reason why reform is a tenth-century rather than a ninth-century development.

I really need to look at tenth–century sources in much more detail before I can sure whether my ideas hold up (and whether Conrad is right about the Formosan controversy). But as usual, his ideas are among the most intriguing and stimulating that I’ve heard recently.

Italians and emperors

In January, I went to a couple of seminars on early medieval Italy, which reminded me not only how badly informed I am about its tenth and eleventh century Italian history, but also how difficult it is to interpret the sources for that period, at a time when the Holy Roman emperors were attempting to exercise control in the north of Italy against local resistance. First of all, at the IHR Early Medieval Seminar we had Rob Houghton from St Andrews on “The vocabulary of groups in eleventh-century Mantua”. Rob was focussing on two imperial charters for the Mantuans: Henry II’s charter from 1014 (MGH DD H II no. 278) and Henry III’s from 1055 (MGH DD H III, no 356).

The first of these grants privileges to the “arimanni” of Mantua, the second to the “arimanni” and “cives” of the city. Rob was arguing that this changing vocabulary cannot be taken as simply reflecting the social structures of the city, as those arguing over whether or not the communes were a uniquely Italian development have tended to think. Instead, they reflected imperial claims to power, while the two emperors were attempting to balance or even undermine the power of the Canossan family. Rob argued that both these charters were produced at times of relatively cool relations between the emperors and this family. The vocabulary of “arimanni” and “cives” don’t appear in other Mantua documents from the centuries before and after, only these ones. Instead, the purpose of this use of vocabulary was to link the emperors back to earlier rulers of Italy, drawing first on Lombard law traditions and then later also Roman law ones.

From lying charters (or at least unrealistic ones), a couple of weeks later one of Rob’s supervisors, Simon MacLean, was talking at CLANS (the Cambridge Late Antiquity Network Seminar) on “Otto I’s invasion of Italy and the writing of Ottonian queenship”.

Otto I’s wife Adelheid has been seen as the first “superqueen”, the particularly powerful queens visible in the late tenth century. She was the widow of Lothar, king of Italy when Otto married her, and there was a “founding myth” of how she miraculously escaped from the captivity imposed on her by Berengar II of Italy after Lothar’s death and was then rescued by Otto. This story is reported by Hrotsvita and also by Odilo of Cluny.

Simon said that Adelheid’s power has rarely been explained, but assumed to be either due to her personality or her wealth and prestige. But although she was certainly unusually rich (she got a huge dower in 937 when she married Lothar), she doesn’t look particularly influential early on; in 950, when Lothar died she was probably only 18, and had only been mentioned as queen in a couple of Italian charters. The dominant figure in Italy in the 940s is Berengar, who became king after Lothar’s death, but because we don’t have sources written from his side, he appears as a villain and also as less powerful than he actually was. Simon argued that although Berengar was persuaded to visit Otto in Saxony in 951 and Otto ritually humiliated there, making Berengar submit in public, Otto didn’t, in fact, control Italy after 952. Berengar held the real power and was, for example, able to depose Otto’s supporters from bishoprics.

In 961, however, Otto again attempted to gain control of Italy. Berengar had been ruling for almost ten years by then, and it was Otto who appeared as a usurper, which Simon argued did actually matter to would-be rulers in the early Middle Ages. As a result, Otto’s charters from the period reclassified Berengar from a client king to a rebel, and also developed the idea that Adalheid had been ruler of Italy and Berengar had usurped the throne from her. Adelheid’s power was thus a construction of the 960s, not the 950s, reflected in the vastly increased numbers of Otto’s charters which now referred to her and called her queen. But as Simon put it, Adelheid’s queenliness was an argument, not an objective fact.

This back projection then had further impacts on queenship in the second half of the tenth century. For example, because Adalheid was a cousin of Berengar’s queen Willa, writers such as Liutprand or Hrotsvit who wanted to support Otto and Adalheid couldn’t just use a contrast of lineages to laud them against their rivals; instead they had to create barriers artificially. For example, Hrostsvit claimed that Willa had tortured Adalheid when she was imprisoned. Queenship was moved to the centre of Ottonian discourse as a result of such short-term needs: queens became good to think with.

The contingency of queenship is a factor that’s often acknowledged by historians; far-reaching norms develop around queens as a response to immediate circumstances. What the combination of the two papers gave was a reminder of the extent to which this is also true of many other medieval political developments. Henry III’s charter describing the Mantuans as citizens was a response to a particular political situation, not simply a reflection of existing social practices. But it in turn influenced subsequent practice and political thought. This haphazard tendency for political theories to develop may have been particularly prevalent in Italy, which combined a large number of expert propagandists, newly developing legal expertise and particularly convoluted struggles for power. But studying other countries as well, we probably need to avoid too much teleology or abstraction when talking about medieval political developments.

496 and all that

Both the last IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminar of 2012 and the first of 2013 were on the Merovingians: first up we had Edward James on “Visualising the Merovingians in nineteenth-century France” and then Étienne Renard from Namur on “From Merovech to Clovis: what can we really know?”

Edward James’ talk, as he explained, was really a companion piece to an article he’s just published: “The Merovingians from the French Revolution to the Third Republic”, Early Medieval Europe 2012 20 (4) 450–471. He started by talking about the changes during the nineteenth century in school history textbooks. There was a noticeable contrast between two of the most popular textbooks during the century. Laure de Saint-Ouen’s Histoire de France depuis l’établissement de la monarchie jusquà nos jours (1827) recounts the history of France as series of 71 chapters on kings from Pharamond to Louis XVI. Just over fifty years later, Ernest Lavisse, La première année d’histoire en France: leçons, récits, reflections (1884) (later entitled Histoire de France: Cours élémentaire and reissued up to 1950), after a chapter on Clovis and his baptism, states: ‘The descendants of Clovis were almost all bad kings’ and promptly goes onto the Carolingians.

Such changes were a reaction to the end of the French monarchy (after its restoration between 1814-1848) and also to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and drew on French revolutionary ideas putting the emphasis on histories of peoples rather than kings, and of the Gallo-Roman rather than Germanic roots of France. The latter is still intermittently a live issue: when Pope John Paul I went to Reims to celebrate the supposed anniversary of Clovis’ baptism, protestors took to the streets in Paris shouting “Vercingetorix not Clovis.”

In this talk, Edward was concentrating on visual evidence, looking at a tradition of French historical painting that he argued was inspired by possibly the “greatest historian of the early nineteenth century”, Walter Scott. One of the key figures was Paul Delaroche, described by one contemporary as a “court painter of decapitated monarchs”, such as in his famous picture of Lady Jane Grey awaiting execution.

350px-PAUL_DELAROCHE_-_Ejecución_de_Lady_Jane_Grey_(National_Gallery_de_Londres,_1834)

Delaroche’s more intimate style, influenced by Dutch genre painting, moved away from an academic style of historical painting that tended to be despised by critics as “arte pompier” (fireman art), because there was normally a man in what looked like a fireman’s helmet lurking somewhere in the scene. After 1830, however, there were more serious attempts to use archaeological evidence to get costumes etc correct, while technological advances in printing, such a lithography and steel engraving made illustrated histories more widely available.

The Merovingian scenes that these painters were portraying, meanwhile, were often inspired by Augustin Thierry who wrote a series of articles (‘Nouvelles Lettres sur l’histoire de France: Scènes du sixième siècle’) taking the goriest bits of Gregory of Tours and increasing their luridness. (He also increased the barbarity of the Merovingians by using “Frankish” versions of their names e.g. “Hlodewig” for Clovis and “Hilperik” for Chilperic. (Charlemagne, incidentally, is “Karl-le-Grand”).

The result of this mix of archaeology and enthusiastic narrative include paintings such as Laurence Alam-Tadema’s The Education of the Children of Clovis where small children practice indoor axe-throwing:

512px-Alma-Tadema_The_Education_of_the_Children_of_Clovis

Other artists also painted the Merovingians, such as the illustrations that Jean-Paul Laurens did for Thierry’s book, described by Edward as including lots of images of conspirators in dark cellars. There were even pictures of non-existent Merovingian atrocities painted, such as Évariste Luminais’ picture of ‘Les énervés de Jumièges’ (also known as “The Sons of Clovis II”), recording a legend that Queen Balthild had two of her rebellious sons hamstrung and left to die on a raft on the Seine.

Edward did point out that there weren’t that many nineteenth-century paintings of the Merovingians; topics from the fifteenth to seventeenth century were far more popular. And the urge to do distinctly Merovingian paintings seems to have died out fairly soon: from the late nineteenth century, pictures showing Gallic and Frankish warriors become very hard to distinguish, merging into the general barbarian prototype of Asterix. This perhaps reflected the view, articulated by the historian Fustel de Coulanges, that seeing French history as a battle between the races of Gauls and Franks was unproductive. Instead, French history was seen as developing from a single barbarian phase before being civilised by the Romans and Christianity.

This study of the nineteenth century is part of a larger project by Edward on reactions to the Merovingians from the Carolingian period onwards. But the re-imagining of Merovingian history was already taking place under the Merovingians themselves. Étienne Renard’s paper was an attempt to make sense of the information for Frankish kings before Childeric I, without assuming that we can just follow Gregory of Tours’ account, given that Gregory was writing more than 100 years later and had no first person information on Childeric’s predecessors.

We were given a fairly detailed handout, but Étienne was speaking in French and my knowledge of fifth-century history isn’t brilliant, so apologies if what follows is scrambled. Most of the talk was about Chlodio and Merovech. Gregory says that Chlodio was king of the Franks and of very noble family (HF 2-9); we know both from Gregory and Sidonius Appolinaris that Chlodio conquered the Artois region, but according to Sidonius, he was defeated by the Roman emperor Majorian around 445-450. Chlodio was said to come from Dispargum and Étienne argued for this being Duisburg in Brabant, rather than in Thuringia.

One of Étienne’s main arguments was an attempt to deduce information on the possible relationship between Merovech and Chlodio from two Merovingian genealogies. These were probably composed under Clothar II in the early seventh century, but survive only in three tenth-century manuscripts. Both include some early names in common: someone who might be Chlodio, his son (called Glodobaud or Chlodobaud), and then Childeric and Chlodoveus (= Clovis). One of the genealogies included three extra names between Chlodobaud and Childeric: Mereveus (= Merovech), Hildebric and Genniodus. Étienne argued these were maternal ancestors: Genniodus was possibly called something like Gennhildis and was Childeric’s mother, Hildebric and Merovius are then her father and grandfather. One version of the genealogy had simply omitted these names, while another had attempted to fold them into a father to son list.

It’s fair to say that this idea didn’t convince the audience overall, but then that included a fair proportion of people (myself included) who tend to see authors of genealogies as quite happy to make things up as they go along rather than trying, however clumsily, to preserve earlier traditions.

Étienne also went on to talk about Childeric, but since by that point both my concentration and his time were running out, all I can add is that he was trying to put together Gregory’s account of Childeric being exiled (HF 2-12) with Priscus’ account of Attila having a Frankish prince as an ally and Childeric’s pagan funeral to argue that Childeric may have stayed at Attila’s court for some years. The significance of the burial, including the sacrificed horses, got some discussions going afterwards, especially when Jon Jarrett pointed out that Childeric couldn’t have organised his burial himself, so what did this say about Clovis and his attitude to his father? Étienne wondered if there were Thuringian parallels, given that Childeric’s wife Basina may have been Thuringian, and added that the nearest parallels for the burial in the period were from Moravia.

We thus ended with an event that we could be reasonably sure happened and can be fairly closely dated, but whose background and significance we’re not at all sure of. It’s also one marked by seemingly gratuitous violence (at least for the horse-lovers among us), but that had obvious symbolic importance to someone. Somehow that seems to sum up the fate of the entire Merovingian dynasty, doomed to spend the next 1500 years providing grisly material for fantasies.

Humiliation and obscurity

Sometimes I find the most intriguing seminars in the IHR Earlier Medieval History series aren’t the ones on immediately relevant topics, but ones that highlight a concept potentially applicable to many cultures. The next two seminars from the autumn term that I want to blog about both reflect this: Annette Kehnel talking about “Rituals of power through the ages: a history of civilization?” and Sinead O’Sullivan on “The sacred and the obscure: Greek and the Carolingian reception of Martianus Capella”.

Annette’s very wide-ranging talk was interested in the ritual humiliation of kings and other rulers during inauguration rituals. She started from a C14 source that discusses how the future Duke of Carinthia was dressed in peasant clothing and slapped in the face by a peasant before he could ascend the throne. She also commented on some of the elements of “weakness” displayed in ordines for making Christian emperors, especially the Mainz ordo found in the Romano-German Pontifical. In this, the king is fetched from his bed to the church, which he enters supported by the bishops. He must take off his weapon and lie on the ground before the altar. He is tested with interrogations as to whether he will fulfil his duties as a king. His anointing, while it sanctifies him, also makes him like a child, someone being baptized or someone who is sick. During it he kneels, with ritually bare shoulders; he is then dressed by the bishop. He has to bow to the person crowning him when he is crowned and the crown is literally too heavy for him to support: Annette reckoned the German crown weighed 3.5 kilograms and was so heavy it had to be replaced by a lighter one before the end of the service.

Annette went on to talk other rituals that seemed to includes elements of the same humiliation, such as Gerald of Wales’ claim in Topographia Hibernica c 25 that one inauguration rite in Ulster involved the king having sexual intercourse with a white mare and then bathing in a broth made from its body. She also cited some non-European parallels and ended up with an image of the humility/humiliation of Barack Obama:

Barack_Obama_sitting_on_stairs_at_US_ambassador's_residence_in_Paris

Barack Obama sitting on the steps of the US Embassy in Paris.

Annette briefly touched on the motivations for such displays: a warning to the ruler himself, an imitation of Christian humility, perhaps psychologically using the charisma of weakness, displaying a power that does not require external symbols of support. Simon Corcoran, afterwards, mentioned the apotropaic effect of averting evil in this way. There was no suggestion that this was an inevitable part of inauguration rituals, but it does sound plausible that such acts were part of the available language of ritual. We probably ought to look to see if there are other examples, even within rituals which overall exalt the powerful.

While Annette’s paper roamed widely in time and space, Sinead’s was extremely tightly focused, on around 20 manuscripts of Martianus Capella’s allegorical work De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Martianus’ book is an obscure work, filled with rare words and Greek terms. The eighth and ninth century glossers added more Greek and Sinead was asking the question of the function of Greek in these glosses.

What she showed in a very clear manner for the non-experts among us is that the glossators weren’t simply trying to explain the book to a less educated audience. Instead they were sometimes demonstrably trying to make the work more complicated, for example by using additional Greek terms to explain ones already in the text, or by providing “Greek” etymologies for Latin words. Even stranger were examples of hyper-Graecizing, where Greek letters which resembled their Latin counterparts were replaced by more “foreign” looking ones, so that (majuscule) eta was used for epsilon, theta for tau and omega for omicron.

Glossing of this kind, therefore, wasn’t strictly necessary. But Sinead argued that it also wasn’t being done solely for exotic effect or by scribes trying to show off. Instead, obscurity was being deliberately cultivated to sharpen the readers’ wits, to make them think harder about a particular text. She quoted Augustine saying that obscurity was divinely pre-ordained, to stop intellects getting bored. There was a desire to clothe as well as uncover meaning; in the discussion afterwards Alan Thacker pointed out parallels to the pre-Carolingian Anglo-Saxon tradition of the opus geminatum twinned prose and poetical versions of the same text.

Sinead’s paper was on a very specialist subject, and yet by making us think about why a particular text was written in the way it was it potentially opens our minds up more widely. It’s easy to presume that glosses are always there to simplify, just as inauguration rituals are always there to exalt. Sometimes one of the most useful purposes of a seminar or paper is to remind us of the basic truth that makes history worth studying in all its complexity: “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Slavery and early medieval economic growth

I am very slowly working my way through last term’s IHR Earlier Medieval Europe seminars, and the next one I want to blog is Marek Jankowiak talking about “Dirhams for slaves: investigating the Slavic slave trade in the tenth century”. Jon Jarrett has already written a report on an earlier version of this paper, so I can summarise the argument fairly quickly.

Marek’s basic thesis is that in the ninth and tenth centuries, a massive trade in slaves underpinned Europe’s economic revival. As he points out, this was a view popular among nineteenth-century historians and more recently eastern European historians, who saw the slave trade as the motor of the economy. More recently Michael McCormick has argued for a large-scale Mediterranean slave trade.

Marek’s looking at evidence from the eastern European network, or rather two networks: one going to Umayyad Spain, with Prague as the key centre, plus another network from shifting areas in Gotland, Poland and Estonia to the Caliphate, on which Marek was focusing. One of his key points was trying to show the scale of this trade, deducing this from hoards of silver in the north. As far as I could note it down, his calculations were as follows:

1) He estimated there was around 1 tonne of silver dirhams in the known hoards.

2) Of this silver, around 2.5-5% were imitations: coins produced by the Khazars and the Volga Bulgars, who acted as middlemen. Marek argued that these coins were produced solely for this trade, as a way of evening out trade flows: that is, when slaves were brought and there wasn’t an immediate buyer, the Khazars/Bulgars minted silver to pay off the northern traders and then waited for the Muslim buyers to come.

3) Marek then used what I think was an argument from die chains in the imitations to argue for the total size of that coinage. He then used this to scale up the total inflow of silver into the north in the tenth-century via this route to 25-50 tons. (This is where my hazy notes meet my limited knowledge of numismatics, so if I misunderstood him, apologies).

4) He assumed that 75% of this inflow was for slaves, arguing essentially, that there wasn’t much else worthwhile that the parts of the north he was interested in had to sell. Large fur production sites are visible in the far north, but there’s nothing much in Poland, for example.

5) He therefore argued that in the tenth century around 5-10 million dirhams were paid for slaves, and given that around 100 dirhams was the price of a slave in the Bulgar markets, that would mean around 50,000-100,000 slaves sold in the tenth century.

As Marek said, that was probably a figure that erred on the cautious side: even if you added in slaves in the western trade, you’re looking at around 1000 slaves a year. He then went onto argue for some of the large number of big hill-forts that appear in tenth-century Poland as being slave camps, places where caravans of slaves being transported could be kept for a night. He also suggested that signs of depopulation between the ninth and tenth centuries in e.g. the western part of Greater Poland might be entire tribes disappearing because they’d been captured and sold.

Jon’s discussed some of the archaeological and numismatic problems with this hypothesis. I want to think about a more general question: is a slave trade on this scale likely and could it act as a motor for economic growth? One of the things that the Making of Charlemagne’s Europe project is doing is providing a prosopography of everyone in charters from 768-814 and I can already say that there were a hell of a lot of unfree. I’m inputting a charter currently that lists 60 mancipia by name given to Wissembourg and though that’s a big list, it’s not the biggest there is and the donor is at most from the regional elite. Elipandus of Toledo claimed that Alcuin, as abbot of Tours, controlled 20,000 servi and that doesn’t sound implausible.

The problem with the argument for slave-trading as the motor of the Carolingian economy, however, is there isn’t much evidence for a large-scale slave trade in the Carolingian world. Even Joachim Henning, talking about a rise in Carolingian period slave shackles, admits that they’re not found within the Carolingian empire. In addition, if slave-trading (i.e. selling on of captives to Muslim markets) was the best way to get rich in eighth and ninth-century Francia, you’d expect more discussion of it in the Carolingian sources. (Probably to justify it morally, given the way that Carolingian authors could justify practically anything rich noblemen did).

There is some evidence both for the resettling of “foreign” captives within the bounds of the Carolingian empire and of the normal taking captive of women and children in warfare that John Gillingham has discussed. But as Henning points out, the selling abroad of the western European rural peasant population by the Frankish nobility was exceptional. If we believe Marek, however, it wasn’t in Eastern Europe at the same time. Why the difference?

Henning, in “Slavery or freedom? The causes of early medieval Europe’s economic advancement”, Early Medieval Europe 12 (2003), 269-277 comments on McCormick’s thesis (p. 273):

it is difficult to imagine that landlords of the west would have systematically destroyed their most effective rural production network – the manorial system – by selling their own peasantry into slavery only to buy silk and drugs in southern markets.

.

In a settled society, the agricultural use of captured slaves and the unfree who might have been “bred” on estates normally makes more economic sense than selling them for luxuries. But there are a few situations where such economic logic may not hold. One is if there is a shortage of agricultural land, so that having extra mouths to feed isn’t compensated for by extra productivity. That’s possibly the case for at least some parts of Scandinavia.

Secondly is when a short-term influx of money allows you to gain a major competitive edge. North-Eastern Europe at this point is having proto-states form (one of Marek’s incidental points was that the Piast state in Poland appears later than previously thought). Is it possible that you’ve got a situation something like Steve Bassett’s FA cup model of small kingdoms violently clashing and being absorbed? In that case it might be worth hoovering up a small tribe or two and selling them off for cash, because one of the things we know that is being bought by people in the eastern borderlands from the Carolingian empire is arms and armour. If you can get money to pay and equip warriors now, that may be a better bet waiting for better harvests six months or even longer down the line from an increased labour supply. Marek’s argument that slavery provided the capital for creating northern states may be correct, but that wouldn’t necessarily make slave-trading the motor for expansion in the whole of ninth-century Europe.

Civic identity and the B-word in sixth-century Francia

The Second IHR seminar I attended this academic year was Erica Buchberger from Oxford on “Romans in a Frankish world: Gregory of Tours, Venantius Fortunatus and ethnic identity”. This started with the question of why Gregory of Tours, our most extensive source for the sixth century doesn’t refer to ‘Romans’ as living in sixth century Gaul. It’s sometimes been suggested that this was either because there weren’t any Gallo-Romans anymore, or (as Helmut Reimitz suggests) that Gregory chose not to mention that particular ethnic identity because it undermined his Christian vision of unity and community.

Erica argued instead that Gregory was writing for a local audience and with a default that those mentioned were Romans. What he used therefore was more locally significant markers, referring to people as of senatorial family and sometimes giving the names of their fathers. While Gregory isn’t consistent on giving details on ethnicity, he is on social networks: the trio of social rank, family and city are the standard way of identifying someone. When an abbot asked St Gallus his name, birth and homeland, for example, he got told his father’s status and city.

Venantius Fortunatus’ uses of ethnic identifiers is more varied: he doesn’t use them in his hagiographical texts, but he does in his poetry. Erica argued that this was because contrasts of Romans and barbarians were expected in panegyric: indeed one woman (Vilatheuda?) was described by Fortunatus as “Roman by effort, barbarian by nature”. Erica concluded that both Gregory and Fortunatus were using Roman models of identity that focused on mainly local classifiers and that they described the world as their ancestors had done, despite all the changes that occurred.

Erica’s paper was a useful reminder that our ideas of “ethnic” identity can get too hung-up with one particular level of identity, that of “a people”, and ignore other possible foci. Maybe it’s because I’m a rustica myself (coming from a Sussex hamlet so small that only Chris Lewis has ever heard of it), that I tend to underestimate the importance of civic identities. It would be interesting to see to what extent such identities could be found, if we look hard enough, in other texts from the seventh century onwards.

(As for the B-word of the title, this arises from a comment in the discussion afterwards by Peter Heather: in the fourth-century, the Romans regarded calling someone a barbarian as very rude – the equivalent, Peter reckoned, to “nigger” or “wog”).

Early medieval comparisons: kings east and west

The IHR Earlier Medieval seminars restarted for this academic year (a mere four months ago) with Jinty Nelson talking on ‘Shaping rules, making rulers: Carolingian and Abbasid inauguration-rites in comparative context’, which, as usual with Jinty, made a number of subtle and fascinating points, while incidentally demonstrating some of the difficulties with comparative history in the early Middle Ages. She was focusing on the period around 750 AD when the Abbasids supplanted the Umayyad caliphate and Pippin III became the first Carolingian king of Francia. Although these events took place far apart (Jinty described it as being “about 4000 km from Soissons to Baghdad as the crow flies, but the crow never does fly”) there had been contacts between Franks and Saracens since the early eighth century, and by the 760s there were embassies being sent between the two rulers. There were also shared cultural elements: monotheism, Jerusalem being seen as a holy city and David as the model war leader, worries about images in the Roman church and, more unexpectedly, a shared interest in sandal relics. (When Pippin and his wife Bertrada visited Prüm monastery in 762, there was reference to Christ’s sandal as being there, while the sandal of the Prophet is a particularly well-documented Islamic relic).

Jinty’s main interest was in inaugural rituals, comparisons of which are slightly hampered by the fact that the Royal Frankish Annals are probably lying about the events of 750 (as Rosamond McKitterick has demonstrated). But the continuator of Fredegar, a near contemporary source show Frankish rituals of anointing and submission by princes. The anointing (carried out by Frankish bishops, rather than the Pope) was a novelty, using the multiple religious symbolism of using holy oil in making new, healing etc. The rituals of submission, however, show continuity with the Merovingian period; in particular Jinty was arguing that Charlemagne demanding oaths of loyalty from his subjects may not have been new. She also pointed out that Bertrada was consecrated, further securing the line by excluding Pippin’s brothers and nephew. Various methods of such ‘dynastic slimming’ became characteristic of the Carolingians – Jinty thought that Charlemagne probably killed his brother Carloman’s young sons, since they don’t appear later in the historical record (although, as Susan Reynolds pointed out in the discussion, there are a lot of reasons for people to die young at the period).

The Abbasids, meanwhile, were presiding over a huge empire, with central places to match: Al-Mansur allegedly built a mosque at Baghdad with room for 14,000 men, whereas Soissons church, where Pippin was anointed, measured 36×26 m. They Abbasids drew on Hellenistic, Roman and Sassanian traditions, but Andrew Marsham argues that the oath of allegiance was the key ritual and sees a tension between ideas of absolute succession and consultation/election of the ruler.

From the 860s there are oaths documented to the caliphs, and these were used to set up successors, in a system which, while it was hereditary, allowed close kin other than sons to succeed (uncles often had rights). There are interesting differences here between the (theoretical) monogamy and increasing exogamy of Frankish royal marriages and an Islamic system which had both polygamy and marriage to close cousins. Despite the Abbasid attempts to ensure the succession, there was still an element of the people’s choice seen as needed and often a concern to buy off close kin with gifts.

Jinty then cited Wolfram Drews arguing that the Carolingians had more institutional ballast than the Abbasids, who suffered from a perpetual legitimacy deficit, with each caliph needing to claim a relationship to the Prophet and thus bypass his predecessors. As she pointed out, however, the Carolingians managed to take the ‘dynastic slimming’ a bit too far, and ended up with no legitimate adult males in 887. She ended by pointing out the word she’d never mentioned in the talk: ‘coronation’, and the contrast this made to late antique Rome. These weren’t sacred monarchies, but all too human.

Overall, the talk confirmed the genuine advantage of a comparative approach to the early Middle Ages: it helps you see some of the other possibilities that were potentially available, but weren’t taken in a particular society. It’s for that reason that Chris Wickham, in particular, has stressed the need for the comparative method. But Jinty’s paper was also a reminder that it’s relatively rare you get such a neat line-up of subjects and sources for any early medieval topic in two different regions. There is enough commonality (and even some contact) in this case to make comparisons seem useful, especially for cultures with common Roman roots. But it’s less clear how far apart you can go in chronological and spatial distance and still get interesting insights: it’s something that enthusiasts for medieval world history haven’t really answered effectively yet, that I know of. Comparisons aren’t odorous, but they don’t necessarily always give us the tool we may hope for.