ICMS Session Report II: Session 59 – Carolingian Secular Culture II

21 May

Consider yourselves lucky – I originally composed an “I hate being sick” rant at the start of this. I NEVER call in but today every time I take 3 steps the room starts spinning. Fortunately, that means I’m fine while seated and can write up another Congress session review.

Thursday, May 13
Session 59
Carolingian Studies: Secular Culture II

This was another good session. Very strong speakers delivering strong papers.

The first paper in this session was “The Court of Charlemagne: Lay Participants in the Aula Renovata” by Jennifer Davis of the Catholic University of America.

She opened this paper by explaining that for the purposes of this paper, “lay” means any person without a clerical role. She then explained that this paper would discuss how she believes that Charlemagne’s political concerns predominated over any theological ideology and that his main goals to be achieved through governance centered around political expediency, not some sort of overall policy.

In discussing the personnel at Charlemagne’s court Dr. Davis explained that while clerics did most of the writing associated with various capitularies, admonitions, letters, etc., they were not generally involved in other tasks. However she did mention the missi – folks who traveled throughout the Carolingian Empire to look after royal interests as consisting of pairs made up of one cleric and one layperson. She discussed how, when it came to taking care of the wealth of the Empire, that 14 clerics and 16 laypersons signed Charlemagne’s will.

Charlemagne used relatives extensively. Many times these relatives were clerics but Davis explained that the key to their relationship was blood, not their religious role. These were people he could trust.

Davis stated that we can only track Charlemagne’s ideology through his actions. There isn’t any other way to gain insight into what he believed or valued.

She discussed the emphasis on literacy, most famously stated in his General Admonition of 789 where he called for the establishment of schools. Davis does not believe concerns over literacy should be attributed to clerics but should strictly be interpreted as being authored by them – not that they were the source of the initiative. She also believes there may be some overemphasis on literacy, at least when it comes to governance. She explained that even an illiterate Count would be able to understand what Charlemagne wanted in general terms. They would have attended meetings and heard proclamations – and they would generally have access to someone who was literate in any case.

The key point of this paper was Davis’ belief that Charlemagne’s reign was predominantly reactive. He had built this huge, unwieldy Empire which was composed of very diverse elements. Most of his decisions were in response to “needs of the moment” – not according to some sort of overall policy or strategy. Charlemagne chose people for tasks who could address problems and get things done. For the most part these were relatives – people he could trust – and not based on their clerical status.

The one area I wish she would have gone into a bit more was the issue of Carolingian redundancy. Carolingian governance was something of a munged, sort of “messy” tangle of people and processes. But things generally got done under Charlemagne and part of the reason was redundant structures. For example, if a local Count failed in his judicial responsibility, missi could step in and take care of conflicts. Now I don’t see where this redundancy can be attributed to a conscious Carolingian policy – it seems to be one of those “it sort of just happened” kind of things. But when discussing Carolingian governance I think a discussion of this might have been worthwhile and I don’t think an overview of it would have taken too much time.

Very good paper. It doesn’t hurt that I happen to agree with her – Charlemagne’s reign was, IMO, an exercise in crisis management. And while she didn’t go into it, there are interesting contrasts to be drawn between Charlemagne and Louis the Pious who showed much more of a theological concern in his governance structure.

The second paper in the session (originally scheduled third) was by Cullen Chandler of Lycoming College, “Königsnähe and rebellion in the Ninth Century.”

I took very few notes for this paper – I’m not sure why, possibly my mind was drifting. In any case, I’ll summarize this very briefly by stating the argument – not the details of it, or my opinion. Basically, Chandler’s argument is that the act of rebellion and taking of arms against the King was not a true quest for freedom but an act taken to force the King to pay more attention to the interests of his subject nobles.

Chandler focused on the 870’s, particularly the refusal of the nobility to support the King in 877 when Charles the Bald took his army to Italy in support of Pope John VIII, and then had to return to face a rebellion by Carloman. Chandler believes the rebellion was a tool used to force negotiation, not a quest for freedom. I’m uncertain if it even ranks as a rebellion myself – it seems more to be a show of nonsupport. I suppose if your magnates don’t obey you, it amounts to the same thing, even if they didn’t actively attack him.

I’m going to leave this one at that – I apologize and if Cullen Chandler happens across this, I apologize to him too. Someone going to the effort to prepare and present a paper deserves better but I didn’t have it for this one. At least I’m not getting paid for this non-analysis.

The final paper in this session – which I did happen to take notes for – was by Helmut Reimitz of Princeton University, titled, “The Future of Lay People in the Carolingian Empire: Ethnicity, Identity and Difference.”

If you’re checking the Congress program you’ll notice two things. First, Reimitz was scheduled to present second in this session. He arrived in the middle of Cullen’s presentation, just having reached Kalamazoo. Second, you’ll note the change in the paper title – I just want to assure everyone this isn’t a typo, but an actual change.

This paper was more of an informational one rather than designed to prove or disprove a thesis. This is how I read it anyway. It tracked how the Carolingians deliberately developed an identity for the Franks beginning in the mid-8th century.

The primary reason given for this was as a means for the Carolingians to establish themselves as the “new” Franks both to distance themselves from the Merovingians and to strengthen their legitimacy as rulers. They created a cover story related to their ethnic name and made a conscious effort to link the name of the Franks with deeds of prowess. The overall purpose was to create a new “ethos” – a common foundation of behavior and identity.

Those of you who have read Rosamond McKitterick’s History and Memory in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2004) will be familiar with this theme and much of what Reimitz discussed. In fact, I titled a review I did on this book on Amazon as, “A Society Constructing a Place for Itself.” 1

I was fairly familiar with this aspect of what Reimitz discussed but was very interested in the second part of the papers which recounts how during the reign of Louis the Pious the ethnic name “Frank” became devalued. Rulers moved away from using this in their titles, becoming known instead, for example, as “Louis the German.” In my notes I wrote, 830’s – name of the Franks no longer used – had lost its mojo. This wasn’t because Carolingians had become allergic to ethnic identifiers. Walafrid uses terms such as Sueve and Alaman, but not Frank.

I enjoyed this paper and can’t find much in it to disagree with. I was already on board with the first portion as I felt McKitterick presented very strong arguments in favor of this in her book. The second portion enters an era I’m less familiar with however Reimitz argued this point persuasively as well. And it points to the increasing regionalization of the Carolingian Europe – rulers will use titles and terms which will resonate with where their support comes from so it makes logical sense.

This was another strong session, though I again apologize for my lack of attentiveness to the second paper. I enjoyed Davis’ paper in particular as, again, this gets into the kind of detailed examination of “what made the Carolingians tick” which I particularly enjoy. All three speakers provided something to think about and without a lot of overlap.

1 If you’re profoundly bored you can read my review by using this link.

McKitterick, Rosamond, History and Memory in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2004). ISBN: 978-0521534369


Posted by on May 21, 2010 in Conferences


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8 responses to “ICMS Session Report II: Session 59 – Carolingian Secular Culture II

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    May 24, 2010 at 9:57 am

    A very fair write-up of the first and third papers, I think, but perhaps missing the point of Chandler's? I think that rather than arguing against rebellions to achieve freedom, he was engaging with a scholarship that saw them as basically demonstrations aimed to achieve a closer relationship with the king, the elusive Königsnähe. I think you have his counter-case right though. It seems to me quite difficult to keep the Königsnähe and 'opening negotiations' positions separate conceptually and one of the things to be said in favour of Chandler's presentation was that his rhetoric kept me from perceiving any such problem as he spoke. I have various other thoughts about this, as you might expect, but I'll save them for my own write-up…

  2. Medieval History Geek

    May 24, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I absolutely fell down on his paper – didn't pay the kind of attention I needed to. If I was being paid for reporting on this I'd have to give part of the money back. Of course if I was being paid I like to think I'd have done my job . . .I very nearly commented on your position announcement post but couldn't think of anything to add beyond, "Er – they won't let me do that here." Profound, huh?

  3. magistra

    May 31, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    If you want something more by Jennifer Davis on Carolingian redundancy, have you read her paper in the book she edited with Michael McCormick, "The Long Morning of the Middle Ages?" That talks more about her theories (and has some other good stuff on Carolingian government). I'm not persuaded, however, by Jennifer's view that the redundancy of administration was deliberate. I think it was more that Charlemagne and his successors kept on thinking that 'something must be done'. They thus almost inadvertantly created more complexity in the system, while never being able to solve the central problem that you can't expect impartial justice in a world based on patronage and unpaid administrators.

  4. Medieval History Geek

    May 31, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    I have read it – what inspired my comment actually . I agree with you – this would seem to be one of C's "ad hoc" arrangements – a "Houston we have a problem" moment. But I was surprised, with that book having recently been released (within 2 years anyway) that she didn't bring that up, particularly since that was her chapter and she suggested that redundancy might be pretty widespread in Carolingian governance.Should warn you – I can't swap quotes from it with you or anything. I gave it to Larry Swain at K'zoo.

  5. Cullen Chandler

    June 24, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    I tried to post a comment here about a month ago–or longer, just after I had read this post the first time–but my computer must have bungled the effort. So here we are…Jonathan is right that my point, if I can call it that, was to get folks to see the 'rebellions' in a different way. The Königsnähe people already do that, in that they understand the rebellions to be not about freedom from kings but rather linkages to kings. But I came across plenty of examples of aristocrats 'rebelling' for reasons that seemed to me to be not Königsnähe. The stumbling block, though, is also just as Jonathan mentions. My main case study, the 877-8 rebellion by the major magnates, is pretty much about Königsnähe when you get down to it. One kind of conclusion I could offer: I think we should quit using the terms rebel/rebellion/rebels for these cases.The paper came from a question I developed when reading some recent stuff, but I guess there's nowhere really to go with it, other than to try to incorporate the infos into something else.Glad I could keep you somewhat awake, though. I would hate for you to have missed Helmut's entrance! :-)

  6. Medieval History Geek

    June 26, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Again, I apologize for not paying attention to your paper as I should have.There are some interesting aspects to what you discussed – I could see some parallels/contrasts drawn to how societies deal with disputes. In various times and places a highly ranked noble had ways of expressing his disapproval of a ruler's policies including, among others; petitions, envoys, mob violence and public disputation techniques ranging from speeches on the Roman Senate floor to Sermons.Should these "non-rebellions" be viewed as a type of public disputation? One designed to express displeasure with a visible display – a Carolingian form with the same goals as an oratory by Cicero to the Roman Senate?There might be a follow-up to Richard Lim's Public Disputation, Power, and Social Order in Late Antiquity in there someplace.

  7. Cullen Chandler

    April 11, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Wasting time as we approach this year's Congress… I'll lightheartedly blame Helmut for the audience's loss of attention. It's hard to compete with a bigger name's potential absence from the session and then with his rushed arrival and cheerful applause it generates. So the schmo presenting has it coming. It's not like anyone should pay more attention to him than to me in the first place! I'm pretty low on the food chain here.Thanks for the review, and keep up the good work. Maybe we'll have reason to meet at K'zoo this time?

  8. Curt Emanuel

    April 12, 2011 at 1:13 am

    I have your session marked as one to attend Thursday. No guarantee I make it (I've made guarantees before – then you run into someone and get diverted) but I enjoy Hagiography and should make it.


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