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).