A non-medieval rebirth

This blog has been dormant for far too long. So long, in fact, that I’m surprised my account had not been terminated a year ago! So I’ve been trying to think of ways to get back into writing for it. Almost all of the advice I’ve heard for how to write more is basically “just write more”…

but my problem is having something to write about. First I need to do the work that leads to writing. Soon, I promise, that will happen.

In the meantime, I thought about maybe sharing something else. The blog’s title, after all, is “Mostly Medieval,” so I’ll take liberty with the “mostly” bit today. What I have for you is the written version of a lecture I delivered to our Scholars Seminar in January 2017. I did the lecture for the seminar, and because I was running the seminar didn’t do anything else with it at the time. But as I thought about resurrecting this blog, it dawned on me that I had this sitting right in front of me. It would be so easy just to edit this and post it.

That semester, the Scholars Seminar was devoted to Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon, and I opened the semester with an overview of the story of the first six movies and some interesting thoughts about how the story relates to earthling history. What follows is pretty much what I did in the lecture, except here you don’t get to see the cool Star Wars Screen Crawl with music that I opened with. It was epic. Whether you’re a lifelong fan of the movies or not, I hope you can spare a few minutes and give this a read.

My Opening Bit
First, how about this bit from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I read late last week: “How to Cultivate Faculty Leaders” January 15, 2017 (I read it a few days later [apologies if it’s behind a paywall for you]). The joke among faculty is that those who move into administrative roles like “associate dean” or something have “gone to the dark side.” Remember last week’s remarks about Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon worthy of our study. This is another way that Star Wars has pretty much infiltrated the culture to the degree of giving us a stock phrase to use.

Overview of the Story, especially helpful for those who are novices, and I kind of feel like I need to apologize to purists in the audience, because this lecture is more about the prequels than the original trilogy. Super duper spoiler warning!

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the inhabitants of many planets came into contact with each other. At some point they established a Galactic Republic to govern their affairs. The leader of the Republic was a chancellor, who worked with the Senate to make laws and regulate their affairs.

By the time the story as shown in the movies actually begins (and I mean Episode I), we see a couple of Jedi Knights in action, safeguarding law, order, and peace in the galaxy. These people are capable of using the Force to accomplish various tasks: The Jedi master the use of the light side of the Force, while their opposites, the Sith, work on the dark side. Ooooh…

Anyway, the Jedi are working to stop some political trouble in the Republic when they get side-tracked to a desert planet, Tattooine. There they meet young Anakin Skywalker, played by some punk kid. To make a long story short, Episode I is about how the future of the Republic is in doubt because of a brewing civil war, and also about Anakin Skywalker going off to learn how to become a Jedi. Along the way, we get really the first battle of the major civil war to come, as the good guys thwart an attempted hostile takeover of the peaceful planet Naboo.

Episode II starts with Anakin as an adolescent or young adult who has made great strides in learning the ways of the Force, but he still struggles with angsty teenager problems. Meanwhile, the political problems of the Republic have not improved, as a Separatist movement threatens to wreck the peaceful unity that has more or less characterized the last 1,000 years. Anakin’s teacher, Obi-Wan investigates some interesting information and discovers that someone has been secretly building up a large army. Why would anyone need an army? At the end of the episode, we see why, because war breaks out between the Republic and the Separatists. The secret army, made up of soldiers cloned from one bad-ass dude, becomes the army fighting on the side of the Republic.

Alright, so along the way, Anakin from the desert planet falls in love with the almost inappropriately-older Padme, a leader of the lush, green Naboo. This throws his dedication to the Jedi order into doubt. Meanwhile, the Republic is going to hell in a handbasket, as the civil war against the Separatists rages on. The Senator from Naboo, Palpatine, has become Chancellor; not only does he take the promotion, but he also eventually takes on additional powers because of the emergency situation of the civil war. As the war wages, Anakin’s personal problems lead him to the dark side of the Force. The Jedi finally figure out what has been obvious to viewers for three whole movies, that Palpatine is “secretly” the Sith lord Darth Sidious. He has engineered the civil war from the very beginning in order to plunge the Republic into chaos. The Jedi attack him and he ends up with a gruesome face, but then in a session of the Senate he announces the political reorganization of the Republic into an Empire. The assembled crowd of Senators cheers wildly. [I showed this video clip from Episode III to the audience.] By the end of the episode, Anakin, who has secretly married Padme, plunges into the dark side in order to try to save her from death in childbirth. He fails at that objective, plus ends up getting badly wounded in a fight with his teacher. The Emperor arrives in time to save his life by putting him into a computer life-support mega-prosthetic, and Anakin’s identity changes to that of the Sith lord Darth Vader. Padme dies giving birth to twins, and the saga can continue with the original trilogy.

I suppose I could have done without the spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen the movies, but I also suppose that Darth Vader is such a prominent character that you may already know something about him even without the movies. So there you go. But the Skywalker Saga of the three/then six/now seven (with an eighth on the way) Star Wars movies is not really my main concern [and thanks to my blogging delay, we are awaiting the ninth in the saga, and two non-saga Star Wars stories have been released]. Instead, I want to highlight some things about Roman history that probably some of you have noticed, but others have not. Basically, the story of Star Wars pretty much happened on earth just over 2,000 years ago.

Roman History and the Late Republic
Quick, name some famous figures from Roman history. For those of you who said “Caesar,” I’m assuming you mean Julius Caesar. Some have said Augustus, either because you know some good Roman history, or you know where I’m going with this lecture.

OK, so the Romans had kings for a couple hundred years, from very likely the 750s to about 510 BCE. The kings were not Romans, and we don’t know exactly why the Romans kicked the kings out, but whatever. The leading Roman citizens formed a Republic, meaning a political system in which leaders were elected and most authority was in the hands of a Senate. In Latin, res publica means “public affairs,” while the word senate derives from senex, or old man—it’s a council of elders. Technically, Rome built its Empire while the Republic was the political system. Over centuries, Roman armies fought wars and conquered territory all around the Mediterranean Sea. Many places still maintained their traditional cultures, languages, religions, and so on, and some places were quite far away from the imperial center in Rome. The geography of the Roman Mediterranean is analogous to the Galactic Republic of the Star Wars story, with “inner” and “outer rim” territories, various cultural groups, and so forth.

The last series of major wars Rome fought to build this empire were the Punic Wars, which spanned a long time between 264 and 146 BCE. By the middle of the 100s BCE, however, the Roman social and economic structures that upheld the Republican political system were under immense strain. While wealthy aristocrats were the officers and generals of the army, regular citizens provided the rank and file soldiers. Being away fighting long wars took their toll on these men’s livelihoods, and over time people began to notice that there were fewer landowners eligible for military service. Families had lost their farms and properties, so the social class that had provided soldiers to the army had been shrinking. Some politicians wanted to install new laws to reinvigorate the class of small landowners, but as you might guess those who had benefitted from the wars by taking ownership of more and more land were opposed to the idea. In a nutshell, this set up a strident oppositional politics in Rome, pitting the populares, who advocated for policies favorable to the common people, against the optimates, who favored keeping power in the hands of the Senatorial class.

For a century, mob violence and civil wars marred the landscape of Rome, Italy, and the Mediterranean. At times, Roman generals had to turn their armies against the city of Rome itself in attempts to restore order. Romans fought against their Italian allies who wanted to separate from Roman authority because they felt mistreated by “big brother” Rome. Later, an illegal junta led by three powerful men took power behind the scenes. This Triumvirate was able to pull strings and manage the affairs of Rome. It was during this time, the 60s and 50s BCE, that Julius Caesar went to conquer Gaul. Upon his return home, he refused to disband his army, leading the Senate to declare war against him. Caesar won this civil war and took power as dictator.

We all likely know that Caesar’s reign as dictator didn’t last very long. His assassination, though, rather than preserving the Republic, just threw it into a deeper tailspin.  Two men who had worked for him, joined by his young adopted son, Octavian, formed a new Triumvirate. While the Triumvirate, like Caesar before them, were populares, the optimates in the Senate believed they could outmaneuver the young men and regain control of Rome and its far-flung territories. They were wrong. The Triumvirate defeated the Senators and then turned on each other. This second civil war was the death of the Republic. Octavian emerged victorious by the year 30 BCE.

By that time, nobody really remembered what the Republic had functioned like at its high point. Really for the last 70 or even 100 years, Rome had known mob violence and war—long periods of internal strife with intervening periods of relative stability that allowed for rebuilding. In 30 BCE, the still young Octavian had established himself as clearly the most powerful man in the Roman Mediterranean, with military force at his disposal and pretty much only friendly supporters dominating the political class that survived the nearly 20 years of civil wars. Octavian had ended that two-decade spree of violence and even had conquered Egypt on the way to securing peace. Nobody really could stand against him as the task of rebuilding the Republic got underway.

And wouldn’t you know, the Senate bestowed Octavian with a series of remarkable powers, allowing him to hold the highest office of consul repeatedly. In turn, Octavian remade the Senate. Its numbers had of course fallen during the long period of turmoil, so he had to repopulate it—with supporters, of course. After a few years, Octavian decided to step down from power, or at least publicly offered to step down, so that the Republic could operate as it used to: with elections for all the leadership positions. The Senate, however, refused. Apparently both the Senate and the common people were nervous at what would happen without Octavian’s strong hand to guide the ship of state. But rather than continue to hold the office of consul, Octavian took the merely honorary title of princeps—first citizen. Finally, in recognition of his achievements at securing peace and stability for Rome, as well as the power and authority he in fact possessed, the Senate bestowed a new name on Octavian: Augustus. And because of the way the political system had been restored under his leadership, historians recognize it as a new political form, the Principate. Augustus had created the Roman Empire and served as its emperor.

Some Thoughts
So, look at what we have here as parallels in the two stories. Both feature imperiled Republics, led ostensibly by representative Senates. Both feature strong political figures who step in to end the problems by waging wars. In both stories, the strong figures reconstitute their political systems from Republics into Empires. And both feature central characters whose names change to symbolize their transformations from mere leaders to nearly invincible powers.

Obviously, in Star Wars, it’s Anakin Skywalker who takes on a new name as Darth Vader, and Darth Vader is not the Emperor. So it’s not a perfect parallel to Octavian becoming Augustus. Augustus also never called himself emperor, preferring to keep up the appearances of the old Republic even though he had the ultimate authority. And of course I know of no historical evidence for anything like Jedi using the Force in ancient Rome.

A lot of people have problems with the prequels. Like, we’re really supposed to be interested in a Star Wars movie that starts with failed negotiations with the Trade Federation? I, for one, find the political machinations behind the wars to be an important ingredient. George Lucas may not always tell his stories in the best way, and the writing for the prequels is admittedly pretty weak, but the politics, intrigue, and story of war resulting in the transformation of a Republic to an Empire drew me in right away. And for a fantasy epic set in a galaxy far, far away, you’ve got to admit that at least that part of the story is quite believable, because it happened here on earth.


Charle-May-Term 2014

Well, here is my first post not really directly related to my work as a scholar. My work as a teacher, however, has from time to time included enterprises that merit mention here. This is one of them.

As many people may know, the emperor Charlemagne died in the year 814. That was 1200 years ago, so some time ago I figured I would do something academic to commemorate the occasion. The best idea I had was to teach a travel course, so that’s what happened last month. My college’s academic calendar makes it possible to devote nearly all of May to the occasional, unusual course offering, especially when somebody can dream up a course featuring travel to a faraway place. This one took about a year of planning and making arrangements, but in the end it was all worth every minute spent. Two faculty colleagues and I led a group of fourteen students and six guests to various sites in Germany, as well as two cities in France, over three weeks. Most places featured some link to Charlemagne or the Carolingian dynasty, but some were related to other historical developments connected to the formation of the Carolingian world or Charlemagne’s legacy. Because Charlemagne was the key element of the course, we all called the endeavor “Charle-May-Term.” The official name was “Charlemagne’s Europe,” which is more professional but less fun.

I neither want nor intend to offer here a full travel journal or photo album, but I did want to share some of the highlights. As the Carolingian period is my professional specialty, it seemed to me appropriate to publicize here, even though the trip was teaching, and also it gives me something to write about, which is the purpose of this blog. So here we go (note, this post is rather long-ish):

The Preliminaries

For three days, the class met on campus. I gave several lectures on the historical developments leading to the creation of the Frankish kingdom and the rise of the Carolingian family, as well as Charlemagne’s empire. My colleagues, who teach German and French, gave lessons on German and French culture, the medieval literatures of those cultures, and crash courses in “survival” French and German for travelers. I was pleased with how well all the students engaged with this material—historical, linguistic, and literary—and it proved a solid foundation for the period of traveling.

Stop #1: Frankfurt

The Dom in Frankfurt

The Dom in Frankfurt

This was the first stop because it’s where the airplane landed. We saw an interesting archaeology museum featuring Roman and barbarian artifacts from the Frankfurt region, which taught our group quite a bit. I gave a lecture reminding everyone about Charlemagne’s church council at Frankfurt in 794, which addressed the doctrinal controversies of Adoptionism and Iconoclasm, among other things. We had good food and apple wine, and everyone pretty well liked the place.

Stop #2: Köln (Cologne)

The even more spectacular Dom in Cologne, as seen on the first night in town

The even more spectacular Dom in Cologne, as seen on the first night in town

I went here on a previous May Term in 2010 (that one was just for “Medieval Germany”) and wanted to return, mostly because of the Roman-Germanic Museum in town and the Dom (cathedral). The museum, which has tons of interesting stuff, could easily be related to the course, because Charlemagne inherited the cultural mixing of Roman and Germanic cultures that took place in the centuries before his own time. The Dom made the itinerary simply because it is spectacular. Whoever is able to make a trip there should do it. And climb the stairs to the observation deck in the tower; it’s well worth the few euros to trek up, passing stones laid in eras from the fourteenth century to the nineteenth, to take in an amazing view of the city and Rhine valley.

Stop #3: Aachen

Our group next to Charlemagne’s throne in the Aachener Dom (you may be able to pick me out)

You can’t do a Charlemagne tour and not go to Aachen. On the In the 790s, Charlemagne made Aachen his capital city, after decades of being an itinerant king. Frankish custom for ages had held that the king would move around the kingdom to administer justice and so forth. But as Charlemagne got a bit older, he appreciated the natural hot springs in Aachen and decided to stay put. We of course went to his octagonal church, now the centerpiece of the Aachener Dom—it’s been added onto over the centuries and now has some lovely Gothic elements. Inside the Dom you can see his throne. The last time I was in Aachen, the gallery where the throne is was under construction, so I didn’t get to see it. This time, we made sure to go up and get a good look. Everything was coming up Charlemagne all over town. A shiny, new Charlemagne museum was set to open—just after we left—and the big pilgrimage was also set for after we left. Depending on when I get this posted, the pilgrimage may still be going on! There was more to see, including a little area in a park where they conducted an archaeological dig. They left part of the site open for observation, behind glass walls, and you could take a gander at things dating all the way back to the palaeolithic. Cool. A good number of students also took advantage of Aachen’s proximity to the Netherlands and Belgium and went for a hike to visit three countries in one day. Also cool.

Stop #4: Paris

Saint Denis, with colored light coming through the stained glass windows--how breath-taking would that have beenb for people who had never seen such before?

Saint Denis, with colored light from the stained glass windows playing on the floor below–how breath-taking would that have been for people who had never seen such before?

I admit that this stop was stretching things a bit. I had halfway held out hope that somebody somewhere in Paris would be into observing Charlemagne’s anniversary, but if anyone was, we missed them. The class took in Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle as official visits. The site most closely related to the course, though, was Saint Denis. It took a good trip on the Metro to get there, but you could see the tombs of Charlemagne’s ancestors Charles Martel, Pippin the Short, and Bertha. Some of his descendants are there, too. Plus, as textbooks will tell you, Saint Denis was the first church structure to be built totally in the Gothic style. That happened because the earlier church burned down, so the abbot had a new one put up in the 1140s. You can easily see that the sarcophagi are in Gothic style, too.

Charlemagne's parents

Charlemagne’s parents

We stayed in Paris longer than anywhere else, because it’s Paris. One whole day was basically devoted to the Louvre, which has a nice Carolingian collection. Then there was a free day, because we couldn’t take students and others to Paris and not let them just be tourists. As for me, I went with my home crew and took in the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and other such things. It was nice. The feedback on Paris was that it was both the high point and the low point of the trip: it’s famous and definitely worth seeing, but as by far the largest city on our tour, there were big-city drawbacks, too.

Stop #5: Strasbourg

Le Petite France, Strasbourg

Le Petite France, Strasbourg

What a lovely city! It got put on the itinerary by the French professor, but I justified it as the location of the Oaths of Strasbourg, sworn by Charlemagne’s grandsons Charles the Bald and Louis the German as they made an alliance with each other against their older brother Lothar. There was a decent archaeology museum in which we saw artifacts from Roman to Frankish times, but an even better museum on the history of the city. I do not exaggerate when I say that it is one of the most well-executed museums I have been to. It features a whole lot of post-medieval stuff, but I can’t hold that against it. The way they have artifacts displayed, in large cases that show types of things vertically while moving by chronology horizontally allows you to see the developments in how, say, cooking vessels were made over a period of decades. On the shelf below there would be something like writing implements, and again you could see changes over time by moving along the display case. I found that preferable to the “go into the room for the 1250s and look at how everything was made then” organization more typical of what I’ve seen. The historical museum also has complete rooms done up in period fashion. Cool. And a cathedral nearby. Learning about Alsatian culture was hugely interesting as well. By the time we left Strasbourg, it had become most students’ favorite city on the trip.

Stop #6: Sigmaringen/Meßkirch – Campus Galli

Blacksmith's workshop, Campus Galli

Blacksmith’s workshop, Campus Galli

This was perhaps the highest highlight of the trip. Sigmaringen is a small town in the Black Forest, but we didn’t go there for the town. Oh, it’s lovely and has a cool (modern) castle of the Hohenzollern family. But the reason we were in the area was to visit Campus Galli. The folks there are building a Carolingian-era monastery complex according to the so-called Plan of St. Gall. The plan exists in a manuscript found at the very old monastery of St. Gall, but it wasn’t the plan for St. Gall itself. In fact, no monastery was ever built according to the Plan. So, let’s do it now! With ninth-century plans! And ninth-century tools and techniques! And have everyone dress and spend their time on-site as authentically ninth-century as possible! I’m all for that. They’ve really just begun, so no official buildings are up yet. Artisans’ huts are, so we got to see the woodworker, blacksmith, basket-maker, and wool women do their stuff. They are preparing the foundations for the wooden chapel, on the spot where the “real” stone church will go, and everything else will follow. This will be a 40-year project, to which the crew members have basically given up their previous life pursuits to join. Really cool. I want to return with students every few years to check in on their progress.

Stop #7: Nürnberg

Part of the Kaiserburg Nürnberg

Part of the Kaiserburg Nürnberg

Nürnberg is one of the places we went to dig into the legacy of Charlemagne. While in France, we read and had class discussion on The Song of Roland, to follow up on the lives of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker that we had addressed in Aachen. For Nürnberg, though, it was all about the “Holy Roman Empire” that came along in the Middle Ages, with emperors modeling themselves on Charlemagne. We saw the Burg (citadel), which has been turned into a museum, and lucky for us had a special exhibit on just the theme we needed for class—the emperors modeling themselves on Charlemagne. (Not that they called it that at the exhibit, but it was a running theme.) Good food, as was the general rule at all these places, good times.

Stop #8: Bamberg

Der Gabelmann, a fountain featuring Poseidon, common Bamberg meeting place

Der Gabelmann, a fountain featuring Poseidon, common Bamberg meeting place

More Holy Roman Empire stuff, and also a stop at the university in town, with which my college has a student exchange relationship. This cathedral has two towers on each end, which is neat to see. It’s also in a Romanesque style, different from the Gothic prevalent in so many other places. Plus, right across the plaza is a location of the Bavarian State Library, of which we were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour. The earliest manuscripts there are from the Carolingian period, but we were unable to see them as they are being digitized. We met with the international studies director at the museum and also met up with students from our college who are doing the exchange program there. There may have been some kind of event relating to a beer garden. The students liked this town, too, even without as much of a direct link to the course themes.

Stop #9: Mainz – Bacharach – Bingen

Fastradas marker

Fastrada’s marker

In many ways, Mainz is an excellent place to end a medieval-history themed trip. The production there of Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type printing press marks one aspect in which medieval civilization gave way to modern. While we were there, we of course saw the cathedral, the history of which has some links to the Carolingians. St. Boniface, and Anglo-Saxon missionary, was made the first archbishop in Germany and was given Mainz as his see in the eighth century. In the cathedral is a marker for the grave of Fastrada, fourth (or third, depending on how you count ‘legitimate’ wives) wife of Charlemagne.

Bacharach, nominee for Cutest Town Ever

Bacharach, nominee for Cutest Town Ever

From Mainz we made a day trip to Bacharach and Bingen, because Bacharach is simply too picturesque of a place to pass up, and Bingen is of interest to serious medieval nerds because of the local should-be-a-bigger celebrity Hildegard. Even though there isn’t much Hildegard-related to see, and nothing pertinent to Charlemagne’s Europe other than the Rhine valley itself in these places, it was worth the trip. There’s the touching story of the Wernerkapelle up the hill in Bacharach, and then the fairly outstanding old castle at the top of the hill, now a youth hostel. Not to mention the wine of the Rhine valley. Our visit to the Gutenberg Museum was, in fact, the last official group event, and the excellent dinner I had on the last night was the appropriate high note for ending the trip.

Closing Thoughts

Fourteen students, three instructors, and six guests made this trip, and to the best of my knowledge, all returned safely to their homes. The feedback I’ve received from students has been quite positive, although I do hope that if anyone has serious recommendations for how to do better, from a student’s perspective, next time, that they will let me know. I enjoyed it, and while it took me away from research and writing, it inspired me to get back to the sources and scholarship with vigor and enthusiasm. I would do another travel course. Not next year, certainly, but sometime soon. The experience on my end is always first-rate! Good memories made, that’s for sure.

Wow, this seems like a very long post. Thanks to whoever among you kept going to the end! I hope the narrative was lively enough and the content informative enough to give a taste of what we did, and the photos satisfying as illustrations. As always, thoughts, reactions, and feedback are welcome. Thanks!

Catching up, with Conferences (Part Two)

Well, it has taken longer than I thought it would to get to the second installment of my report on the Midwest Medieval History Conference 2014 meeting at Dominican University in Oak Park, Illinois. But I’m glad to say that it was because I was making progress in other endeavors that I didn’t spend time on this.

Without any further delay, I’ll get right to the second session of October 17, “Medieval Women.” If you somehow missed Part One, feel free to go back to that first.

Miriam Shadis of Ohio University led off this group with her paper, “Three Sisters: The Portugues Monarhcy, the Cistercian Order, and the Communities of Lorvão, Arouca, and Celas.” As I know basically nothing about Portugues history, I found the talk interesting. The daughters of King Sancho I of Portugal were named as heirs in his will—heirs to landed resources, in the cases addressed here, convents. During this period, the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the monarchy was in a period of insecurity and needed allies. Through charter evidence, Miriam showed that Sancho’s oldest daughter, Teresa, took control of the convent of Lorvão, becoming its domina (lady or mistress, for those of you who may not have much background in Latin). The youngest daughter, Mafalda, achieved something similar at Arouca, and their sister, Sancha,founded two houses: Alenquer in around 1217 and Celas in about 1220. Beyond simply making these facts known to a largely ignorant audience, the paper argued that these royal women helped to establish the Cistercian order in Portugal, all because of their inheritance from Sancho. I know there was more to it than that, with plenty of corroborating detail, but my notes don’t reflect the sophistication of the paper. I seem to recall something about the sisters being able to control the land more as abbesses than they would have had they married.

Next up came Yvonne Kathleen Seale, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa. Her paper, “The Abbey of Saine-Élisabeth of Genlis: A Case Study of Patronage and Affiliation in Thirteeenth-Century Northern France,” investigated the Premonstratensian movement through the lens of women’s participation at the title house. Women were a major part of the Premonstratensian movement, but their involvement declined in France—and only in France, contrary to long-held belief—during the thirteenth century. Genlis was originally a hospital, then a house for Victorine canonesses, then a Premonstratensian male house before it became an institution for Premonstratensian women. Yvonne’s main question was “why?”, as in why they switched away from Premonstratensian anything. Her answer was that women wanted out of the contemplative lifestyle that the order had become, a move away from its evangelizing prior nature. (As I look back through my notes, I find myself nearly overcome by my ignorance of this subject, so I may have horribly mangled things related to this paper. Going to conferences is both energizing and embarrassing simultaneously. Energizing because you can feel the energy of people gathered to talk about research, and you can’t help but to get infected with it. But also embarrassing, especially at all-plenary conferences like the MMHC, because there will inevitably be people speaking on subjects about which you know very little. Or at least if “you” are me, and early medievalist in a world where most medievalists study the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.)

Bobbi Sutherland of the University of Dayton was last in this session. She tested my familiarity with fourteenth-century history with her paper, “The Menagier de Paris: A Product of the Black Death.”  The Menagier is an instructional text, written by a man for his young wife. But Bobbi argued that the anonymous author’s true purpose was not to teach his bride how to keep house so much as it was to record cultural knowledge in the context of the Black Death’s resurgence in 1361, which of course was accompanied by other calamities, namely the Hundred Years’ War, the Avignon Papacy, and eventually the Papal Schism. The Menagier’s author wrote things down in order to bring order to a disordered world, in something of a quest for memorializing the way things were in his own day. Bobbi compared the text to conduct and merchants’ literature and cookbooks, as well as similar works for lay audiences like The Canterbury Tales. I thought this was pretty cool.

And then there was discussion. (I’ve been reading some things in the last couple of months about etiquette, or the lack thereof, at academic conferences, and so for this post I’ve taken to calling the Q&A period “discussion,” rather than Q&A, because it lets people off the hook for not asking real questions. Anyway…) I have in my notes that four people raised points to our speakers, and I happened to know them all. Barbara Hanawalt asked Bobbi why authors like that of the Menagier didn’t write straight-up encyclopedias to record cultural knowledge. Bobbi said it was because the other kinds of texts were more intensely personal (but also, as I thought, that the genre of encyclopedia was not yet invented). Barbara pointed out that these authors didn’t write in Latin, and that the kind of people who would write encyclopedias would have done so in Latin, so maybe it had something to do with the register of literate culture.

David Perry, Vice President of the MMHC and our host (Dominican is where he teaches), asked for Miriam what it meant to the royal daughters of Portugal to “be Cistercian.” Miriam answered that they were more closely associated to their local bishops than to the Cistercian formal plan. (In a sense, I might say that made them more Portuguese than Cistercian, maybe.) Leah Shopkow and Amy Livingstone asked similar questions along the lines of whether the daughters’ inheriting could have been part of a royal strategy. Miriam admitted that such could well have been the case, but, because that angle was not part of her study at that point, she would have to think on it further. The follow-up went to Yvonne, asking her for more examples from her wider work to flesh out her ideas, which were quite interesting. She complied, but I didn’t record those examples in my notes.

Thus ended the first day’s sessions of papers. My next post, hopefully in less than a week’s time, will feature the featured keynote speaker, Barbara Rosenwein. Tune in!

Catching up, Starting with Conferences

If anybody out there has read my previous posts and perhaps been waiting for more, I apologize. I began this blog enterprise as a way to get myself to write more, to help get my thoughts on the stuff I study into some kind of organization that could be sharable. I may or may not have more along those lines forthcoming to this forum, so we’ll see how that goes. For now, though, I thought I would try to knock off some of the rust from the part of my brain responsible for writing by giving brief reports of the conferences I attended during the past academic year. This first installment will address the Midwest Medieval History Conference (MMHC), held in October of 2014. Yes, yes, that’s a long time ago by now, but the ideas shared at the conference deserve to be known more widely. Regrettably, I had intended to get them up in this blog much earlier—months ago, in fact—but somewhere along the line I misplaced my notes and only just recently found them. In order to make the report more manageable for me to write and digestible for others to read, I’ll break it up into a series of posts, each post being devoted to only one session of the conference.

The MMHC holds a special place in my conferencing heart. During my PhD school days, because Purdue is in the Midwest, I attended that conference about every other year, when it was close enough to drive. The people there were always very welcoming and supportive of grad students, and I got to know a few people quite well. Since I’ve had my job rather far to the east, I’ve only attended twice, including fall 2014, but for several years a group of MMHCers would organize a dinner during the big International Congress at Kalamazoo and would invite me to join them. There, they would encourage me to attend the MMHC more regularly, and I would reiterate my willingness (and also inability) to do so. It really is a neat conference. All the sessions of the Friday-Saturday schedule are plenary, so you don’t have to choose which talks to see and which to miss, and you get to participate in a reception the first evening, the lunch/business meeting on the second day, and then a reception and banquet that last night. The sense of collegiality that develops, especially among those whose jobs are in the Midwest and so attend regularly, is very nice to observe and be a part of. This coming fall, the conference is going to be hosted by Steve, my friend from grad school, at his university, so I really hope to be able to make it. But enough of this… time for my actual report on the scholarship shared at the conference!

We’ll begin on the afternoon of October 17, 2014. To kick off the very first session, John McEwan of St. Louis University presented his work, “Charity and the City: London Bridge, c. 1176-1265.” I know almost nothing at all about the bridge, so learning that there was a chapel on it was interesting to me. The presence of the chapel helped make the bridge and the organization of people who ran it—mostly chaplains—stand out as a charitable institution. The main argument, which revises accepted historiography, is that these people governed the bridge before the city took it over in the thirteenth century. I’ll follow the model of the conference and address Q&A at the end.

Next up was Andrew Larsen of Marquette University, whose paper “Student Violence against Women at Oxford, 1200-1500” led off with the idea that medieval universities were violent places, and that we historians have known that for a long time but haven’t really studied it. As the mace-bearer for my college during the last academic year, I have explained to many people the original significance of the now ceremonial object: namely that violence was perhaps sometimes necessary in order to hold university processions, or at least that symbols of violence were used to convey the importance of the event, so this subject caught my interest almost immediately. In the case of medieval Oxford, Andrew has charted that the homicide rate (a modern statistic more useful for comparison than the absolute number of homicides) was maybe 110 per 100,000 people—fairly high! His main angle in this project is to study violence in the vein of Ruth Mazo Karras’ recent work on constructing masculinity. He has decent records to draw on and has found that Oxford students’ crimes of sexual assault and homicide against women were surprisingly rare at only seven from the period in question (thirteenth trough fifteenth centuries). He noted, however that rape would have been underreported, even though murder would likely not have been. All this led Andrew to conclude that violence against women was not common at Oxford—contra Karras—and to ask why. The conclusion he shared with us was that the availability of easy consensual sex made violence against women largely unnecessary—when it occurred, it must have been because something went wrong. Most of the violence perpetrated by the male students of Oxford (remember that all medieval university students were men) was against non-university men in town.

The final speaker of the first session was Jason Ralph of Northwestern University. His paper was also about medieval university life. “Between Town, Gown, and Crown: The Roles of the University in Freiburg” focused on a German setting, particularly the conflicts about legal jurisdiction between the University of Freiburg, the city, and the Habsburg princes during the late Middle Ages. One key example was that of married university members and the contradictions inherent in their situations: university men were legally clergy, and therefore had to be unmarried. What to do with such a conundrum?! Jason supplied many more examples of legal disputes from the fifteenth century, his argument being that the power of the crown came to be asserted over both town and gown.

In Q&A time, Andrew received most of the attention, likely because his argument was a bit controversial. To lead off, the point was raised that rape is about violence rather than sex, which is problematic for his argument about the availability of willing sexual partners contributing to low levels of violence against women. Andrew acknowledged that, but replied that because of who the students were (young adult men in clerical orders) sex was still important to them. This was followed up by a reminder that legally, prostitutes could not be raped, so even if there had been sexual violence perpetrated against them, it would not have been recorded as a crime. A third question/point got at the spaces where violence was committed and if that could factor into the argument. Andrew replied that the sources do not reveal locations. Finally, someone asked whether using the bishops’ sources—because the bishops had jurisdiction over the university—would yield more insight, to which the reply was that those sources had no relevant information.

Questions turned to Jason’s related paper on university affairs and jurisdiction over them. Basically the courts gave the crown the avenue to take over the university. Originally there had been an opportunity for the town, but the university was more amenable to royal authority. Perhaps, a second questioner raise, this was because the university was seeking to shore up its place in “intellectual and social firmaments”… which Jason acknowledged while also pointing out the competition for resources. Affiliation with the crown would benefit the university in both ways.

Finally, the last part of discussion got back to John’s paper on London Bridge. The idea of resources sparked a question on whether kings and queens of England frequently used charitable institutions to finance buildings. John replied that in this case, it was the city of London putting the charity to work, so to speak (my words, not his) because the civic government lacked the capacity to build.

And then there was “that person” at the conference who took a few minutes to articulate a “question” and then even more time to extemporize on the answer. Not my favorite part of conferences, but because it was the MMHC, at least it was good-natured and not hostile in any way. Just a person thinking out loud (or showing off, if you’re less charitable).

That was not the end of the first day, but it has to mark the end of this post. There’s lots to do this summer! I’ll be back with the rest of the MMHC soon!

The Mysterious Case of Aizo

If you know enough about my research (like, for instance, having read the overview post a while back), you know that it’s about the Carolingian kings taking over the area known as the Spanish March and dealing with it as part of their expanding empire. The overview post took the story about to the capture of Barcelona, which is a great benchmark. But the conquest continued after that. For about ten more years, the Franks fought battles even farther south, attacking the coastal cities of Tortosa and Tarragona before calling things off. They didn’t get much more territory on the coastline, but maybe a bit more fell into their hands inland. So there you have it—things were settled.

Except that they weren’t. For some reason, Count Bera of Barcelona was accused of treason. His trial and deposition in 820 were the subject of another post, so I won’t go over them here. The rest of the 820s was a bit tricky for the emperor, Louis the Pious, concerning the Spanish March. By 826, there was a full-on revolt in the area. It was a serious enough problem for Louis to help out the local defenses by dispatching additional forces, including his own sons and a handful of major aristocrats, but help did not arrive in time.[1] The rebels were able to claim a sizeable chunk of territory in the middle-south, basically the future county of Osona, which remained outside of Frankish rule for the next fifty years or so. What’s perhaps most interesting about this episode is the identity of the leaders, men named Aizo and Willelmundus. (Depending on your tolerance, this might be a little long. I do hope you’ll stick with me, though.)

Map of Charlemagne's Empire, which was the same under Louis the Pious, from the old Microsoft Encarta outfit, which I'm pretty sure no longer exists

Map of Charlemagne’s Empire, which was basically the same under Louis the Pious, from the old Microsoft Encarta outfit, which I’m pretty sure no longer exists

What we know

About Willelmundus, we know that he was the son of the former count, Bera. That much can just about explain his motive for participating in the rebellion. Although there isn’t much evidence from elsewhere in the Carolingian empire on sons of deposed counts rebelling in order to seize territory for themselves, it more or less makes sense that Willelmundus would raise arms against the king at least in a show of displeasure. (I’ll note here that others of Bera’s children went on to have prosperous careers under Frankish rule.[2]) It’s Aizo that has been the source of more consternation on the part of historians, though, as a quick check of Jonathan Jarrett’s excellent blog will reveal (if you’re really interested in this story, which could almost be something out of Game of Thrones, go ahead and open Jarrett’s exposition in another tab for easy reference). Wherever historians are puzzled, other historians will jump into the fray, so here I go.

My puzzle

To repeat some of what Jarrett and others have said, there are some folks who say Aizo was a Muslim named ‘Aysun from back in the early days of the Carolingian conquest of the Spanish March.[3] A more recent suggestion is that he was an “Islamicized Goth” who led the revolt out of a sense that the Franks had wronged the Goths of the March by getting rid of Bera and replacing him with Frankish counts.[4] Even more recently, Jonathan Jarrett himself (in his piece, which you have open in that other tab) has put forth that Aizo was a local figure from the Osona/Ausona region, probably the son of the former governor who reported to Muslim authorities. That’s what allowed him to come back and find supporters for his revolt.

My thoughts, as of now and until I do more reading and thinking, are that Aizo certainly was not a pro-Visigoth, anti-Frank freedom fighter. If he was in residence at the royal court, or at one of the royal palaces, before starting or joining the uprising in the Spanish March, that’s an indication that he was something of a high-level hostage.[5] On these points, you’ll see that I agree with Jarrett. All this could mean that Aizo was indeed the son of the old wali of Barcelona, Sulayman al-Arabi. That identification would also indicate against Aizo being a staunch Visigoth, because his father would have been Arab (the epithet al-Arabi means “the Arab”). It also would make him quite old—a young adult of about 25 years, commanding troops in 778 would be in his sixties or near 70 by the revolt in 826. Another problem with the pro-Visigoth argument Ollich makes is that it favors the “policy change” from appointing Visigoths to appointing Franks to office in the March as a trigger for the revolt, but there’s a delay of at least five years between Bera’s ouster and Aizo’s rebellion. Even given the time necessary to send messages to the right people, escape from the palace, and travel from Francia to the March, I can’t see that it would take five years to launch the operation (Charlemagne received an invitation from the same area in 777 and was fighting there in 778).

The sources we have for who Aizo was are literary, pretty confusing, and nowhere near contemporary with events. He could have been the son of the leader of the Muslim garrison in Barcelona, handed over to the Franks as the garrison left as a safeguard against a future attack. Or he could have been the son of an important leader in Barcelona, sent to Louis as security against treachery from within the city, in case the Muslims should try to take it back. This would still allow him to be a son of somebody important in Barcelona, a hostage of some rank and former prominence in the Spanish March escaped from a palace in Francia to head ‘home’ for a rebellion. Either way, this looks to me not like a pro-Visigoth insurrection, but a straight-up power grab, making use of old relationships, even his father’s or family’s ties to power players in the frontier and Córdoba, to carve out a lordship where he could.

Osona is the area we're concerned with here. All the dark areas were later ruled by the same count.

Osona is the area we’re concerned with here. All the dark areas were later ruled by the same count.

Some back and forth

Jarrett points out, as you surely know from checking that other tab, that the Frankish sources do not label Aizo as a Muslim or ‘Saracen’, a point that he takes as evidence that Aizo was not Muslim. In fact, the best ‘ethnic’ attribution I can find for Aizo is in the later Frankish Annals of Fulda, wherein he is called “Aizo Gothus”—Aizo the Goth.[6] So which source that attributes an identification to Aizo should we trust? On one side is the Frankish annalist who included the revolt in his coverage of the 820s even though he wrote later and used earlier sources for his information. On the other we have the literary tale from the Arabic perspective, dating to the eleventh century.[7] I’m inclined to say that Aizo was a “Goth” in that the Frankish writers, both of the Royal Frankish Annals and the Annals of Fulda, had no memory of his actual origins, so that’s what they called him. Whatever ethnic labels meant, I think they meant more to the Carolingian rulers and their cronies than it did to people in the Spanish March, if you remember. As to how Aizo had support, he must have had connections in the Osona region around Vic. Maybe that’s where some of the old Muslim garrison at Barcelona set up shop after they lost the city, or alternatively where his “Gothic” family and buddies were waiting for him.

I note here that the relationships between emperor and locals seem to have held firm—individuals in Barcelona and Terrassa would have been on the front lines, and those folks fought off the rebels, suffered the most from their attacks, and remained loyal to the Carolingians, despite the role in the revolt by Bera’s son Willelmundus. Why would it have turned out that way if the revolt were fueled by pro-Visigoth sentiment? I mean, we have the presumably Visigothic son of the ousted Visigothic count of their area fighting. Is it that the hispani who were under royal protection would be even more anti-Muslim than the local Goths? Those who fled the Muslims, as well as their descendants (40+ years on, remember), would maybe be more likely to stay loyal to the kings. Individual Goths also received grants from kings, though, so that doesn’t seem to hold. Both groups also would have had 20 years of living under Bera and yet felt no residual loyalty to him or his son. Presumably they would have done a lot of the fighting, and that under the command of Bernard of Septimania—the second Frankish count of Barcelona and marchio (let’s not forget a chap named Rampo)—and flinched not one bit about serving Franks against Goths. I just can’t accept, then, the hypothesis that Aizo’s revolt was a pro-Visigoth, anti-Frank thing. So, maybe that’s why it’s known as Aizo’s revolt rather than Willelmundus’s—Willelemundus would have been the more likely candidate to capitalize on any Gothic feeling, yet he was second fiddle.

Louis the Pious as miles Christi, from Wikimedia Commons

Louis the Pious as miles Christi, from Wikimedia Commons

Wider significance

Why did the revolt succeed in setting up an area outside Carolingian control? My best shot at this point is that it wasn’t really under their control in the first place. Look at the documentation we have, from both texts and archaeology.[8] The sources show that a line of fortifications was set up through the middle of what became Osona, along the river Ter. No royal documents from before the revolt pertain to the area—that doesn’t mean that nobody lived there, just that the kings were not insinuating themselves into local socio-political networks, at least that we can see in the sources that survive to us, which indicates to me that they didn’t consider the territory to be theirs yet. Fortifying the area along the Ter, where the kings don’t issue diplomas, says to me that by the 820s it was still a military hot zone. Aizo took an area that the Carolingians did not really strongly hold—there was his best chance, because actions in more firmly held areas did not succeed in conquest, and in fact the narrative sources portray him as an invader. Aizo carved out an area that nobody else was really ruling. That also helps to explain why he and apparently at least one successor were able to maintain their independence from both the Carolingians and Umayyads—they were on the frontier itself. It looks like the area was a vacuum with no political authority to organize it by the time of Wifred the Hairy, so it’s easy to suppose that Aizo and/or a successor died out and left the people to their own devices. Given the troubling internal political situation within the Carolingian kingdoms of the middle decades of the ninth century, it isn’t surprising that there was no organized military (re-)conquest of Osona. Only in the 870s and 880s, when Wifred and his brothers took over for the great Frankish magnates south of the Pyrenees, did a colonization and organization effort begin in the area that Aizo had wrested control of in the 820s.


So there. I hope you made it to the end. I’m pretty sure I think that Aizo was from a prominent family in the Spanish March, which is why he was a hostage at the Frankish palace. He escaped and raised a revolt in Osona, where he had the most support, and attacked other areas of the Spanish March but did not conquer them. He maybe never intended to, as long as he could set himself up as lord in Osona. As to the main question, whether he was of Gothic or Arab heritage, the sources just don’t have anything solid to rely on. This last fact, plus other things I’ve seen related to ethnic identity in the early Middle Ages, argues against his revolt being pro-Visigoth and anti-Frank. It was just a power grab by a guy who had motive, means, and opportunity.


[1] Annales Regni Francorum, ed. Friedrich Kurze as Annales regni Francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et EinhardiMonumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) VI (Hannover 1895; repr. 1950), 168-176 for the jam-packed years 826-828. English translation. Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers, Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972).

[2] Maria-Mercé Costa, “Les genealogies comtals catalanes,” in Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona, 1992), vol. 1, 447-462.

[3] Salrach, El procés de formació nacional (segles VIII-IX) (Barcelona, 1978), vol. 1, 80-83, 85-87, is where I first saw this.

[4] Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer, “Vic: la cuitat a l’època carolíngia” in J. Camps, Catalunya a l’època carolíngia: art i cultura abans del romànic (segles IX i X) (Barcelona, 1999), 89-94, transl. as “Vic: the town in the Carolingian age” ibid., pp. 464-466; also her “Roda: l’Esquerda. La ciutat carolíngia”, ibid. pp. 84-88, transl. as “Roda: l’Esquerda. The Carolingian Town” ibid., pp. 461-463.

[5] Adam J. Kosto, “Hostages in the Carolingian World (714-840),” Early Medieval Europe 11 (Oxford 2002): 123-147.

[6] Annales Fuldenses, in MGH SS, 1, ed. G.H. Pertz (Hanover, 1826), 359. English translation by Timothy Reuter, Annals of Fulda (Manchester, 1993).

[7] Jonathan Jarrett’s blog, in that other tab, has good info on this source by al-Udri.

[8] All cited above—Ollich has the archaeology, and the annals are the major textual sources.

Some Thoughts on Identity

Some Thoughts on Identity


I’ve been doing some thinking lately on identity and ethnicity as regards my research topic of the Carolingian Spanish March. Way back when I was first writing up my dissertation, which is still the kernel of the current book project (although not much is recognizable), I knew that ethnic identity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages was a fairly interesting and current area of research. So I threw in some references to ethnic identity as a concept, based on what I could gather from source material that I had examined for other purposes. After the dissertation was finished, I intended to come back to the topic of ethnicity as I made a book emerge from the same research base. Well, I did, at least a little, hitting up a few volumes of the Transformation of the Roman World series. Then I wanted to write up what I had for the project as a whole and get it out for feedback. Somehow, the bits here and there on ethnic identity didn’t quite get built up, so I need to address the issue as I polish off the project.

I’ve done a bit more reading and thinking,[1] but none of it has really changed my mind on what my sources seem to indicate about how people in the eighth and ninth centuries thought about ethnic identity. Let me lay out my thoughts here and see what people think, if anything.

The classic work on the Spanish March is kind of old and tends to see the political dynamics of the Carolingian period as tension between pro-Frankish and pro-Gothic leanings. The case of Bera I, installed as count of Barcelona in 801, can serve as a case study. The areas of Septimania and the Spanish March (roughly modern Languedoc and Catalonia) were both once part of the Visigothic kingdom in Spain, which had its capital at Toledo. Septimania was north of the Pyrenees but was part of the kingdom of Toledo because the Visigoths had controlled the area since the fifth century. The Franks took over Septimania in the 750s and before 800 had annexed Girona and Urgell south of the Pyrenees.[2] In 801, a Frankish army led by Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious took Barcelona, and Bera became its count. Fast forward a bit… Having served as count for almost 20 years, Bera was accused of treason. There was a trial by combat, presided over by the emperor Louis, which Bera lost. Louis commuted his death sentence to exile, and so Bera spent the rest of days in Rouen, Normandy.[3] Traditionally, Bera is linked to the Visigothic culture and identity of the region, because his family had roots in Septimania, which is supposed to have made him a ‘natural’ choice to govern another formerly Visigothic area centered on Barcelona. And so some more modern folks have seen ethnic politics in Bera’s treason—his ‘pro-Visigothic’ political tendencies running up against the strong ‘pro-Frankish’ sensibilities of the emperor and his men. The current Wikipedia article on Bera makes something of a big deal about Visigoths doing this and Franks doing that. I don’t think so.

For one thing, Bera seems to have been one of the emperor’s men. Following the pattern of his neighbors in the western Pyrenees, areas that were only loosely connected with the old Visigothic kingdom before the Muslim conquest, any powerful marcher count in the 810s could have declared himself king of his territory and tried to back up his claim by fighting the Franks.  Since Bera did not do this, in part because the eastern Pyrenees were more strongly connected to Frankish dominion via roads, and in part because Bera himself came from Septimania, a region that did not really exhibit independence-minded, ‘pro-Visigothic’ political proclivities under decades Carolingian rule, any notion that Visigothic identity was the root of political activity in the Spanish March seems to be more an assumption on the part of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars. If anything, we should look at the motives of those who accused Bera of treason and brought about his downfall.

The Spanish and Gothic Marches of the Carolingians, from WIkimedia Commons

The Spanish and Gothic Marches of the Carolingians, from WIkimedia Commons

The prime mover seems to have been Gaucelm, son of William of Gellone. William was count of Toulouse and cousin of Charlemagne; he was a major player in the affairs of Aquitaine, Septimania and the Spanish March from the 790s to about 806, when he retired to the monastery he had founded.[4] Oh, I should mention here that most people today think that Bera was also a son of William’s, by his first wife, a lady named Khunegunde.[5] It seems that Bera acquired more territories over time, having already been “sub-count” (ruling for his father, William) of Razès and Conflent from about 790. He became count of Barcelona as noted, and then in the early 810s acquired Besalú and Girona when their count died.[6] Modern works suggest that Bera wanted to make peace with the Muslims nearby, and that he headed a pro-Visigothic faction in the Spanish March, against Gaucelm’s pro-Frankish, pro-war faction.[7] But it also seems that Gaucelm, who governed Rousillon and Empúries,[8] was losing out in terms of power and prestige in Septimania and the Spanish March, despite his exceptionally high birth and whatever other merits he possessed. To his half-brother, but that apparently was no consolation. Furthermore, the anonymous biographer of Louis the Pious known as “the Astronomer” named a man called Sanila as Bera’s accuser, pointing out that Sanila was a Goth.[9] One Goth accusing another Goth of treason against the Frankish emperor with whom the accused served and for whom he governed the city they took does not really spell politicized ethnicity. It seems to me, then, that instead of ethnic tension—Frankish Gaucelm vs. Visigothic Bera—what we have here is a case of aristocratic rivalries gone so far as to cost somebody his job and honor.

Basically, this case shows that identity or ethnic labels didn’t matter. I can’t find any evidence in narrative sources that anybody acted a certain way politically because of a perceived Gothicness or Frankishness. This is precisely the methodological approach advocated for in the big enterprise on early medieval ethnicity.[10] ‘Being a Goth’ or ‘being a Frank’ cannot be shown to have had any real meaning. Maybe the law codes were different, and people realized that. Maybe the languages were different, and people realized that. Maybe people understood that there were Franks, Goths, Bavarians, Lombards, and so on all within the kingdom, but didn’t care because such labels may have been ethnic—each denoting a ‘people’ with its own history that could be read or talked about—but not racial, by which I mean indicative of a difference that would cause discrimination or persecution. Where we can actually see unfavorable treatment, it is because of religion. I mean, look at Charlemagne’s court, and the scholars he attracted to it—Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Lombard, Visigothic/Hispanus. The Carolingians did not hold their cultures of origin against them. Some fairly recent and influential work on ethnic identities notes that Carolingians paid more attention to ethnic identity than others (also law and customs).[11] Einhard, for one, knew what it meant to dress like a Frank, the same way the Astronomer knew what it meant to dress like a Basque.[12] There was some value to dressing like one of the people one was ruling, not super-fancy, even though dress styles could vary within a group like “the Franks” according to class, status, or fashion.

The ‘ethnic’ labels seem to indicate more where people came from than ‘who they were’ as an identity. This is my current thinking about identity in the Carolingian period—that ethnic labels did not matter in terms of politics. There’s quite a bit of scholarship on the issue, so my project will have to address both ethnic identities and the work over the last 15 or so years on the issue, but this is what I think I’m going to say about it.


[1] Especially the essays included in Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300-800, ed. Walter Pohl with Helmut Reimitz. The Transformation of the Roman World, 2. (Leiden, 1998).

[2] Chronicon Moissiacense, in MGH SS, 1, ed. G.H. Pertz, (Hanover, 1826), 280-313 at 297; Roger Collins, Charlemagne (Toronto, 1998), 70.

[3] Annales Regni Francorum 741-829 qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, in MGH SSrG, 1, ed. G. Kurze (Hanover, 1895), 152.

[4] See for example Annales Laureshamenses, in MGH SS, 1, ed. G.H. Pertz (Hanover, 1826), 33. See also for the leadership of William Annales Alamannici, in MGH SS, 47; Chron. Moissac, 300.

[5] Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La família del primer comte barceloní, Berà,” Cuadernos de Arqueología e Histoira de la Cuidad 10 (1967): 187-193, argued that Bera was of Gothic heritage, the son of count Bello of Carcassonne, and governed Roussillon before the capture of Barcelona. Martin Aurell, “Pouvoir et parenté des comtes de la Marche Hispanique (801-911),” in Regine Le Jan, ed. La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920)(Villaneuve d’Asq, 1998), 467-481, offers Khunegunde. The thinking is that Khunegunde was of Visigothic heritage, which some say helped Bera establish himself in power in Barcelona, where the inhabitants would have been Visigoths. But my point here is that it was more the Carolingian kings who used such ethnic labels, more just for show, because the ethnic label of a person did not matter much in politics.

[6] Josep M. Salrach, El procès de feudalització (Barcelona, 1987), 141-2.

[7] Ibid., 142-3.

[8] Ibid., 141. Salrach calls (pg. 142) Gaucelm count of “Empúries-Roselló” (Roselló is the Catalan spelling of French “Rousillon,” which version I use because the place is now part of France).

[9] Astronomer, Vita Hludowici imperatoris, in MGH SS, 2 (Hanover, 1829), 625. There are a couple of English translations; see note 12. Sanila has been called a friend and subordinate of Gauclem’s in Salrach, El procès de feudalització, 143.

[10] Peter Heather, “Disappearing and reappearing tribes,” in Strategies of Distinction, 95-111.

[11] Walter Pohl, “Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity,” in Strategies of Distinction, 17-69 at45.

[12] Einhard, Vita Karoli, ch. 23; Astronomer, Vita Hludovici imperatoris, ch. 4. [Note that Pohl, as in note 7 above, mistakenly cites Thegan rather than Louis’s other biographer, the anonymous ‘Astronomer’.] These are translated into English in Thomas F. X. Noble, trans. Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: the lives of Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan, and the Astronomer (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009).

Oh! Let me introduce my project…

It occurs to me that I have had this blog up and running for several months now—I’ve only made a few posts, but let’s disregard that fact—and many people who happen to come across it may not know what it’s really about. Well, as previous posts can tell you, it’s to give my professional writing a kickstart by allowing me to put down my thoughts informally, but well enough organized for people to follow. And also to share some of the high points of being a medievalist. But enough of that. Here’s some material I have put together to give a somewhat scholarly overview of my project. The project itself is much larger, but what we have today is a start that should allow you to catch on if you’re unfamiliar with Carolingian Catalonia:

By way of introduction

The Spanish March of the Carolingian Empire provides an interesting and useful case study in how rulers integrated a conquered territory into the political, social, and cultural framework of the regnum francorum. From the first forays across the Pyrenees in 778 to the severing of links between local counts and their kings late in the tenth century, Frankish rulers managed personnel, patronized monasteries, and cultivated ties to people based in the March in order to maintain a sort of royal presence in the area. In this way, the Spanish March became not just a militarized frontier zone, but a prized province, a sought-after honor for members of the imperial aristocracy. When it was entrusted to loyal men of regional origins late in the ninth century, a dynasty was able to emerge gradually. The new ruling family of the March, it should be stressed, seems never to have sought autonomy, and indeed maintained loyalty to the Carolingian rulers. It was the Carolingians themselves who faced dynastic challenges in the late ninth and tenth centuries, and these issues helped to separate the monarchy from the March. What the history of the Spanish March tells us about the Carolingian Empire, then, is that relationships between local aristocrats and kings were coveted by both, and when these relationships became ultimately untenable, powerbrokers in places like the March were left to their own devices.


A reliquary bust of Charlemagne in the Aachen Cathedral Treasury (photo taken on the May trip)

Reliquary bust of Charlemagne in the Aachen Cathedral Treasury (photo taken on the May trip)

The beginnings of heavy Carolingian involvement in the area that became the Spanish March can be traced to a meeting of Muslim messengers and the Frankish king at Paderborn.[1] The wali of Zaragoza submitted to Charlemagne himself and the cities over which the “king of the Saracens” had placed him.[2] An uncertain political environment within the Abbasid caliphate perhaps provided an opportunity for ambitious local governors.[3] Suleiman ibn al-Arabi, governor of Barcelona and Girona, was fighting against the caliph’s forces and made the appeal to the Frankish king, who had proven himself against the Saxons and Lombards.[4] Suleiman and his son Yusuf offered Charlemagne a sort of protectorate over cities and promise of collaboration. There is no indication that these walis from northern Spain wished to enter into alliance with Charlemagne in order to truly submit to his rule, so it must be that they wanted to entice the Frankish king with lofty promises, deliver on those promises as little as possible, and therefore maximize gain for themselves.

Charlemagne was concerned with affairs on multiple fronts in 777, when the envoys came to Paderborn.[5] He accepted the rebels’ invitation to invade Spain and in 778 crossed the Pyrenees. The king himself made way for Zaragoza via Pamplona, while a second army was to meet him after first coming through the eastern passes.[6] We should note that troops were called in from all over the kingdom and its various parts. Eastern territories of the Frankish realm provided troops to participate in the eastern entrance of Pyrenees, with soldiers coming from the western territories at the western end of the mountains.[7] This enabled Charlemagne to arrange his forces for a pincer movement like the one he used during the Lombard campaign and others.[8] Most annals agree on the events of the campaign, which by all accounts ended badly with the famous Basque ambush in the Pyrenean pass at Roncevalles. Despite his ultimate failure, Charlemagne appears to have realized his goal of conquering Pamplona—without a fight—taking hostages from the governor of the city.[9] At Zaragoza, however, he was less successful. Surviving sources from southern Gaul report that the Franks killed thousands of Muslims in battle, before having to withdraw in order to deal with a Saxon force that had crossed the Rhine.[10] Charlemagne never returned to the southern theater again. He left to his subordinates and his son, Louis, the tasks of controlling and expanding Carolingian holdings in the area.

Louis the Pious

An actual street sign for "Louis the Pious Street" in Barcelona (photo by your humble blog author)

An actual street sign for “Louis the Pious Street” in Barcelona (photo by your humble blog author)

Louis was born during the campaign of 778; three years later he was named king of Aquitaine. By reorganizing the region as a sub-kingdom under his son (as he also did in Italy under Louis’s brother Pippin), Charlemagne did not merely give a nod toward the fact that Aquitaine had until recently been ruled by its own duke, but indeed made for more efficient management of his growing kingdom as well as further involvement in Spain.[11] Indeed, the kings’ men launched numerous campaigns, nominally under the young Louis. The Astronomer and various annalists’ accounts of Louis’s reign in Aquitaine reveal just how great the effort was. Just as Charlemagne’s interest in Spain was sparked by envoys from Muslim leaders in 777, Louis faced similar opportunities. The young king of Aquitaine even received Muslim envoys and agreed to peace in 790.[12] Of course, not all Frankish interaction with their Muslim neighbors was quite so peaceful. Evidence points to many armed confrontations during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. In 785, Girona submitted to the Franks, according to the Moissac Chronicle, which states that “the men of Girona delivered the city . . . to king Charles” even though Charlemagne was in Saxony that year, and as noted never personally ventured south of the Pyenees after 778.[13] Nevertheless, the successful annexation of Girona resulted in the creation of the first county in the Spanish frontier area, with the Frank Rostagnus as its count.[14]The Pyrenean region was incorporated into the new kingdom of Aquitaine and placed in the hands of the very young Louis and his advisors.[15]In 793, the year Louis turned fifteen, William, duke of Toulouse, led Frankish forces against the Saracens, who ventured forth from Hispania into parts of Gothia and terrorized the Christians there.[16] The Muslim raid may have been prompted by Charlemagne’s attention to other matters, namely in Saxony and his canal project designed to link the Rhine and Danube.[17] Other combat followed, often instigated by the Franks after Louis reached his majority. Indeed, the Astronomer reports a rather significant campaign in the late 790s that burned the city of Lleida and ravaged the countryside around Huesca, but no permanent conquest resulted.[18] Louis later set his sights on cities farther south. Because of this campaign, he was able to inflict damage on the Muslim troops raised to stop him and return to Aquitaine with booty plundered from along the route, including the cities of Tarragona and Tortosa.[19] These and other minor campaigns did not result in further conquests as much as shows of Frankish strength, so they can be said to have set the geographical limits of Frankish rule south of the Pyrenees.[20]

The most important campaigning revolved around the city of Barcelona, which was to become the principal seat of power in the March. By 797 the Franks had formally acquired the city by negotiation, but its Muslim governor seems never to have actually surrendered it.[21] Louis needed a rather extended campaign to affirm Carolingian control of the city. After meeting at Toulouse to develop strategy, the king of Aquitaine set off for Barcelona in 800. He divided his army in three parts.[22] Despite hopeful expectations that Barcelona would surrender like Girona, it seems that Louis set off with ample preparations for a long siege.[23] One Frankish detachment successfully blocked Muslim relief forces; these Muslims withdrew, freeing the Franks to join their comrades at Barcelona, where resistance was tough. The siege of Barcelona lasted into winter, proving a longer operation than the Franks were accustomed to, but causing the city to suffer and become demoralized. Louis appeared with his reserve troops in early 801, and six weeks later Barcelona capitulated, allowing the king a triumphal entrance on Easter Sunday 801.[24]When all is taken into account, the Carolingian kings needed intermittent fighting from 778 to 801 to solidify their control of the Christians in the future Catalonia—approximately the same length of time as they needed to accomplish the same task for pagan Saxony. The conquest of Saxony occupies pages upon pages in the accounts of those who knew and worked for Charlemagne as well as in those of modern historians.[25] It is about time that the Spanish March, of Carolingian Catalonia, became as well known.

As always, please let me know if any of this is unintelligible, incorrect, or otherwise needs to be fixed.


[1] Annales Regni Francorum741-829 qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi. in MGH SSrG, 1. ed. G. Kurze (Hanover 1895), 48-49, 51 [frequently abbreviated as ARF]. The Reviser states that the emissaries surrendered their cities to Charlemagne. For recent treatment and re-evaluation of this source, see Roger Collins, “The ‘Reviser’ Revisited: Another Look at the Alternative Version of the Annales Regni Francorum,” in Alexander Callander Murray, ed. After Rome’s Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History. Essays Presented to Walter Goffart (Toronto, 2000), 191-213.

[2] ARF, 48-51.

[3] J.J. Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam (London and New York, 1965; reprinted 1996), 95-98, 115.

[4] Ramon d’Abadal, El domini carolingi a CatalunyaCatalunya Carolíngia 1(Barcelona, 1986), 41-2.

[5] As the annals make clear, the king was preoccupied first and foremost with the Saxons, as they hold the first place in the year’s entry; the fact that he was at Paderborn for the assembly is also telling. See the entries for the years 776 and 777 in ARF, 42-51. See Abadal, El domini carolingi a Catalunya, 39-41, which points out that Arabic chroniclers downplay the significance of the meeting.

[6] ARF, 50-53; Odilo Engels, Schutzgedanke und Landherrschaft im östlichen Pyrenäenraum (9.-13. Jahrhundert). (Münster im Westfallen, 1970), 8. See also Robert-Henri Bautier, “La campgagne de Charlemagne en Espagne (778): la réalité historique,” in Roncevaux dans l’histoire, la légende et le myth: Actes du colloque organisé à l’occasion du 12e centenaire de Roncevaux, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, 1978, vol. nouv. série, 135 (Bayonne, 1979), 1-47.

[7] See, on raising troops, Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 71-110.

[8] Roger Collins, Charlemagne (Toronto, 1998), 60-61, 66-67.

[9] Annales d’Aniane in Histoire Générale de Languedoc, vol. 2. Cl. Devic and J. Vaisette, eds. (Toulouse, 1875), cols. 1-12, at 8-9; Chronicon Moissiacensein MGH SS, 1, ed. G.H. Pertz (Hanover 1826), 296; ARF, 51.

[10] Annales d’Aniane, cols. 8-9; Chron. Moissac, 296.

[11] The argument that the move placated Aquitanian particularism stems from the harsh fighting earlier in the eighth century. See Leonce Auzias, L’Aquitaine carolingienne (Toulouse, 1937), 1-63. Archibald Lewis, The Development of Southern French and Catalan Society, 718-1050 (Austin, 1965), 51, discusses the region’s particularism as a possible motivation behind the creation of the kingdom. But see Collins, Charlemagne, 70 and 73.

[12] See Astronomer, Vita Hludowici, in MGH SS 2 (Hanover, 1829), 609 and 611.                I like the recently published translation in Thomas F. X. Noble, trans. Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: the lives of Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan, and the Astronomer (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009).

[13] Chron. Moissac, 297; Collins, Charlemagne, 70.

[14] Rostagnus may have already been count in the city, perhaps leading in its submission to the Franks. See Josep M. Salrach, El procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX) 2 vols. (Barcelona, 1978), vol. 1, 17-19; Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Dels visigots als catalans, ed. J. S. i. Callicó, 2nd ed. (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1974), 155, 202. The main source is Astronomer, c.13 (trans. Noble, 237).

[15] Astronomer, cc. 3-4 (trans. Noble, 229-231). See also Louis’s portion of the Frankish kingdom as spelled out in the Divisio regnum MGH Leges 1, 140-141.

[16] Annales Laureshamenses, in MGH SS, 1, ed. G.H. Pertz (Hanover, 1826), 33. See also for the leadership of William Annales Alamannici, in MGH SS, 1, ed. G.H. Pertz (Hanover, 1826), 47; Chron. Moissac, 300.

[17] See ARF, 93, for the year 793; Annales d’Aniane, cols. 9-10; Chron. Moissac, 300; ARF, 95. See also Collins, Charlemagne, 127-128.

[18] Astronomer, 613-16.

[19] Astronomer, Vita Hludowici, c. 14 (Noble trans. 238-239).

[20] ARF for 809. See especially and the many ARF and other entries for the 790s and early 800s.

[21] Collins, Charlemagne, 74, emphasizes Louis’s role in enforcing the treaty. ARF, 100-101 highlight the presence of the Muslim governor in Aachen. Astronomer, Vita Hludowici, 611 states Louis on the campaigned into Spain but did not receive Barcelona.

[22]Astronomer, Vita Hludowici, 612-13. See also Lewis, Development, 41.

[23] Salrach, El procés, vol. 1,14-24; Abadal, El domini carolingi a catalunya, 183-216. ARF, 116 mention a two-year siege, which is surely an error.

[24] Astronomer, Vita Hludowici, 612-13; Chron. Moissac, 307, which places the campaign in 803.

[25] The Saxon wars take up a great deal of Einhard’s Vita Karoli—see the translation by David Ganz in Einhard / Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne (Penguin, 2008) and the new book by Bernard S. Bachrach, Charlemagne’s Early Campaigns(768-777): A Diplomatic and Military Analysis (Brill, 2013).

New Name, Same Blog

Dear Loyal Readers,

I trust that there are some of you out there, at least a small handful. I would certainly not blame you for giving up on this blog, what with it only putting up three posts in nine months. But I remain hopeful that I can get to it more regularly as administrative duties diminish over the coming months. For example… Stay tuned for the occasional update of my pending Charlemagne Tour! I’m co-leading a travel course during May 2014, taking 14 students and assorted other traveler-learners on an extended trip to places in Germany and France that can be associated with Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty. That should be fun, and I plan to share some of our adventures here.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about the tenor I want this blog to have. I’ve never been fully satisfied with the name I gave it originally. My vision for this enterprise is that it have a professional, scholarly focus–no stories from the classroom or corridors unless they directly inspire my thoughts on the field I study. But I also want it to be a venue for thoughts in formation. So it should be a serious blog, but not one that diverges too much from my generally laid-back personality. I chose to name it “Somewhat Deep Thoughts” as a way to get that idea across. I wasn’t completely committed to the name then, and recently I’ve been thinking it should be called something else. The thoughts expressed so far are actually quite deep, at least in how they pertain to my work, and I intend to continue blogging along those lines. With that in mind, I’ve changed the title to “Mostly Medieval,” which shows my professional and scholarly orientation while leaving open the possibility of making the occasional post that does not deal directly with my research. Such a post might be about the May travel course, which will not result in any publications but is still academic in nature, or maybe recent developments at the college where I work that are appropriate to share.

I promise, no photos of cats, no bragging about kids, no blowing steam about things social or political. Everything will continue to be professional and academic, but from now on only “mostly” medieval.

Thanks for reading,

Tooting the Horn

Well, as I had feared, the busy business of the academic year has thwarted my plans to make regular posts here every other week. I am disappointed by this turn of events, if not altogether surprised. But never fear! I have become inspired lately, thanks to chats with colleagues, following other peoples’ blogs, and the almost-final meeting of one of the committees I’ve been working on this year, to get back to the blog. Recalling its purpose–to keep me writing–I have decided to care a bit less about the subject of writing. So, rather than fret about not having time to think about scholarship and therefore not write much, I’m just going to put out this small post. It’s weeks overdue at this point, but it strikes me as completely in keeping with the professional purpose of the blog.

This is out:Image

If you follow the link embedded in the image, you will be taken to the webpage where you can learn a bit about this book and even order a copy. The volume itself, Discover and Distinction in the Early Middle Ages: Studies in Honor of John J. Contreni, is the product of six years (!) worth of effort. For those who are interested in stories about how things come to be, I can share with you the highlights of this journey.

To start with, there is a tradition in humanities fields for the former students and friends of an influential scholar to come together and create a Festschrift in that scholar’s honor. As you can tell by the term itself, the Festschrift custom seems to come to us from the German academic system; I’ll translate it roughly as “celebratory writing/publication”. Well, in 2007, my friend Steven A. Stofferahn, whom I met in grad school, and I came up with the idea to produce a Festschrift for our doctoral advisor, John J. Contreni. We got some ideas from John himself about what he would consider a good volume of collected studies, and then we set ourselves to the task of recruiting contributors. By and large, the response from people we invited was along the lines of, “Of course I’ll be happy to write something for John!” When it was all said and done, we had accumulated promises from fourteen scholars from different countries, plus the two of us, for a total of sixteen essays. Contributors from the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Canada, France, and Germany, from very established leaders in our field to quite junior scholars just starting their careers, lined up to participate. Steve and I were to be co-editors, so we divvied up responsibilities and set to work.

I organized a series of sessions at the International Congress on Medieval Studies that met during May of 2008. We had three sessions featuring eight speakers and a response from John himself. The papers that these folks delivered became the kernels for their essays in the volume. The other half of our contributors were unable to participate at Kalamazoo that year, so they set to work things they had been meaning to write, or on aspects of larger projects ongoing, that would make a good tribute for John. We had a very good timetable set, with essays due at the end of summer 2008 so that they could be edited (by Steve and me) and sent along to the press for vetting and so forth. We had hoped for a publication date of 2010, knowing full well that it would probably not happen.

But things were moving along quite swiftly, and all the horror stories we had heard from people who had edited similar collections seemed like fairly tales meant to discourage young scholars from undertaking a Festschrift. I am still very proud to say that our contributors by a large were able to meet the deadlines, and that the refereeing process once the collected essays were out of our hands went fairly smoothly. We weren’t really going to make our pie-in-the-sky publication date in 2010, but that was fine. A Festschrift usually appears at about the time the honoree retires, so we weren’t in a big rush.

Things started to get a bit harried as 2009–a successful year in the progress of the volume, no doubt–became 2010, and then 2010 became 2011. At that point, the active working on the project on our end as editors was mostly past. We had to face delays caused by an elusive copy-editor and other forms of logjam at the press, as well as one of our contributors facing a tough professional situation and become hard to keep track of and contact. We kept in touch with the managing editor, whose support we had throughout the entire process, and whom we happily thank for her efforts. We probably lost about a year because of the slow-down. But 2011 turned to 2012, and things were looking up. It takes a good bit of time to actually make a real-life book, and at the beginning of 2012 we were at the stage of page proofs. By the end of the next year (which was last year, if you follow me), we had a nice set of handsome, nicely bound, real-life books!

All told, from the moment I sent the first email to Steve about planning this whole thing in April 2006, to the volume’s appearance as a physical book in December 2013, it took seven and a half years to execute. But really, we didn’t get started in earnest until spring 2007. That’s still a long time, and I wish it could have been shorter. But it really was a good experience, a far cry from some of the bad times I hear other people have had, and we are quite proud of the book. So, give that webpage a look (go ahead and follow this link) and buy yourself a copy. Best $60 you’ll spend all day, I guarantee.

A Confession, then an Argument

Confession: I love my job. I love teaching. I see true value in advising students and helping them in their efforts to achieve goals for college and beyond. I appreciate the significance of meeting with my department colleagues and with committees to do the business of the college. But… I hate not being able to work on research and writing consistently. Whenever I manage to get back to it, there always seems so much more just to read, so that it never seems like time to write… and it’s been this way for ten years. I don’t know why it really takes so long to complete an admittedly long project, other than putting writing on the back burner during each academic year, and then always feeling the need to read a lot more. And even then, given the piecemeal approach to work, new insights don’t always get incorporated very well when it comes time to write.

OK… now that’s off my chest. Turning my attention to scholarship, let me set up a bit of an argument between me and another historian. This fellow, Jonathan Jarrett, is clearly a good scholar who knows what he’s doing in studying charters—basically documents that record transactions involving property. He is not afraid of doing meticulous work. He is also a bit argumentative, often in what seems to be to be unproductive ways, in that he can treat the academic enterprise as a zero-sum game. If he is right about something, then someone else must be wrong. Still, he does excellent work, and I can refer you to his blog,[1] book,[2] and articles as proof.

I came into his crosshairs over ten years ago. In 2002, an article I wrote was published in the journal Early Medieval Europe (and won that journal’s annual prize for the best article that is the author’s first).[3] That was quite a feather in my cap, as EME is a top-notch journal. The next year, an article Dr. Jarrett wrote was published in the same journal and won the same prize.[4] In a footnote, he took issue with my interpretation of the aprisio, a type of land-holding that seems really to have existed only in early medieval Spain. In particular, this word applies to land that had been brought back into cultivation after a period of being either unsettled, unorganized, or unproductive, and it really seems to come from the Spanish March and Septimania, although there are clear parallels to practices known by other names in other parts of northern Spain. My article argued that Charlemagne used the aprisio practice as a way to get his royal authority to permeate down to the local level of Septimania and the Spanish March and to build a loyal following of individuals who were given right to their aprisiones as property without having to answer to the jurisdiction of the counts in the area. I made this claim on the basis of royal documents, and furthered the argument by pointing to later documents issued by Charlemagne himself and his successors to show that kings protected the rights and status of aprisio settlers.

So far, so good. But Dr. Jarrett didn’t see things in quite the same way. In that footnote in his 2003 article  that referred to my article of the year before, he mentioned that he hoped to publish a response to my thesis. That happened in 2009/10, again in the journal Early Medieval Europe, in an article titled “Settling the king’s lands”.[5] My name appears many times in the main text of that article, and my earlier paper is referred to in a good many footnotes. Dr. Jarrett’s argument in “Settling the king’s lands” is basically that aprisio was a local thing, and that kings and immigrants had pretty much nothing to do with it. He critiques my reading of some of the documents I had used and points out instances where I was more generous to the surviving source record than he thinks necessary. And you know, I am willing to concede some of those points. Having written the paper that seems to have set him off, I remember trying to figure out what to do in those situations. I was trying to flesh out my major point about Charlemagne while still a graduate student, and my training was not centered primarily on working with royal documents. (As a matter of fact, my graduate training was not centered on the study of any particular kind of source text, whereas Dr. Jarrett’s was. I am therefore fully willing to admit that he should be better at that than I am. But I digress.) Anyway, I remember grasping at straws to try to explain why later documents don’t repeat in detail the precise list of rights that earlier kings had granted to the aprisio settlers. I settled on the notion that they didn’t need to repeat the rights after decades of having them recognized. I knew at the time that my explanation was rather weak, so I’ll concede. So Charles the Bald cannot be proven to have actively protected the kinds of rights to immunity that Charlemagne had earlier issued. But that doesn’t mean that Charlemagne never issued them and upheld them when challenged.

We can get into a little debate as to whether only a group of people known as hispani were given such lands and rights because they were refugees from elsewhere in Spain. I emphasize the point that Charlemagne put such immigrants under his own protection, while Dr. Jarrett emphasizes established, local people doing their own thing. I can see Jonathan’s argument, but I need to go back to the sources before I settle my mind. The main argument between us is that we are placing our strongest emphasis on different aspects of the subject: his interest is local society, especially in the tenth century, while mine is royal authority in the late eighth and ninth centuries. I happen to think we can both be right; he seems less inclined to do so. And I can certainly accept his points about how the aprisio idea functioned as a way for local people to settle and organize land without royal involvement in the very late ninth century and throughout the tenth. My article in 2002 really didn’t go that far in time because it wasn’t germane to the thesis. But some things that Dr. Jarrett asserts in “Settling the king’s lands” just cannot go unanswered.

(Warning to non-specialists: there might be weird vocabulary in this paragraph.) For one thing, contrary to what he seems to say, I never claimed that Charlemagne “invented” aprisio, or if I did, I meant in terms of “inventing a new way for the king to link himself to locals by co-opting a local practice”. As king, Charlemagne was claiming deserted areas for his fisc and immediately granting them out retroactively to those who cultivated them, giving these people limited immunity from comital jurisdiction. Of course he was recognizing a fait accompli every time, not giving people permission to undertake something new. But these people became immunists and something like vassi dominici in that they enjoyed a direct relationship with the king. Rights of immunity are shown in a famous case from 812 that formed part of the backbone of my argument in 2002. Early documents from Louis the Pious also show immunity. I might concede that Charles the Bald’s documents of aprisio do not show it as part of a continuing royal program of immunity—that’s where I am forced to see the weakness of my earlier argument, as described above—but I’m not claiming that they were ever a royal program. I’m claiming that Charlemagne saw what was going on and seized the opportunity to turn it to his advantage. If Charles the Bald did not, and aprisio reverted in meaning to a simple label for land reclaimed from waste, so be it—that does not mean that such properties were not bestowed immunities in earlier years. The so-called “thirty-year clause” that appears in these documents[6] is important as a way to make the grant (because waste was theoretically and legally part of the fisc and thus only legally attainable by alienation from the king) part of the aprisionist’s patrimony. Now, did Charles the Bald have to grant aprisiones out of the fisc retroactively? Did later kings? By the end of the 840s, the rights of immunity are no longer enumerated, so does that mean that the aprisionists no longer had those rights? The right to recognize land reclamation seems to have shifted over from the kings to the counts by the tenth century… just the time when kings ceased to intervene in the secular affairs of the Spanish March more generally. It’s irrelevant to my argument about royal authority what kind of role aprisio played in the tenth century because my main point is about Charlemagne, really, and my 2002 article was colored by my interpretation of the 812 case, and I stand by that interpretation.

There you have it. Please, dear readers (if there are any), leave a comment. If I’ve done up this post in a way that renders it impossible to follow, let me know so that future posts won’t have that problem. If you’d like more information, I can provide it in the comments. If I have made some error in judgment, fact, or interpretation, by all means point it out. It may cause me to change my mind, as did some of Dr. Jarrett’s arguments, and I’m not too stubborn to change my mind in the face of good information. General comments about how to improve the blog are also welcome. Perhaps I should include photos or other images, or something else. Let me know what you think so I can make this as useful to others as I think it has been for me.

[2] Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: Pathways to Power (London: Royal Historical Society, 2010).

[3] Cullen J. Chandler, “Between Court and Counts: Carolingian Catalonia and the aprisio grant, 778-897,” Early Medieval Europe 11 (2002): 19-44.

[4] Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over past and future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses,” Early Medieval Europe 12 (2003): 229-258.

[5] Jonathan Jarrett, “Settling the kings’ lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective,” Early Medieval Europe 18 (2010): 320-342.

[6] The record of the dispute, dated to 812 reveals that the land in question had become property of the hispani immigrants because they (or their ancestors) had held the land by royal permission for at least thirty years. The document is published in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, ed., Catalunya Carolíngia vol. 2, in 2 parts: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya (Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 1926-1952), 312-314.