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.