Barbarians

Stuart Airlie

  • Medieval Germany and its Neighbours 900-1250 by K.J. Leyser
    Hambledon, 302 pp, £18.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 907628 08 7
  • The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians 751-987 by Rosamond McKitterick
    Longman, 414 pp, £9.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 582 49005 7
  • Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society: Studies presented to J.M. Wallace-Hadrill edited by Patrick Wormald, Donald Bullough and Roger Collins
    Blackwell, 345 pp, £27.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 631 12661 9

Confronted with kings called Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple, Charles the Fat and Louis the Blind, and chroniclers like Notker the Stammerer, Benzo of Alba and Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, we might be tempted to think that the history of France and Germany a millennium ago can offer us nothing more than the dreary spectacle of one barbarian succeeding another on the banks of the Seine or the Rhine. Even the fame of the great figures of the period makes them less than real to us, turning them into figures of myth, so that the Charlemagne of The Song of Roland is quite a different figure from his historical prototype. While modern French scholarship busies itself with probing the dreams of the poem’s king in order to uncover a ‘feudal libido’, can we recapture the dreams that troubled the original Charlemagne (a light sleeper, as it happens)? Already in the Early Medieval period people were in the business of making images for themselves and investing belief in them. Thus the learning of the Saxon historian Widukind inclined him to think that the Saxons were descended from the soldiers of Alexander the Great. Similarly, some Franks fondly imagined that their people had a Trojan origin.

Both Dr McKitterick and Mr Leyser endeavour to see past such images, delusions and sheer propaganda in order to reveal a truer picture of barbarian Europe. For Dr McKitterick, the Carolingians were not a clan destined (or indeed legally entitled) to found an empire: rather, they were ‘Frankish aristocrats just like any other Frankish aristocrats, but with harder fists and sharper elbows’. Mr Leyser has much to tell us of the ‘hard-faced purposes’ of kings in his period and his index has a separate entry for ‘chicanery’. Neither of these books, however, seeks to cut the past down to size. Dr McKitterick’s book details the ostentatious sophistication of the Carolingian world, whether in its precocious attempts at setting up a literate élite to create a truly Christian Europe, or in its shots at satirical poetry, music and arithmetic. Mr Leyser is aware that symbols can have the force of realities. His book ends with a brief, valuable and unflattering sketch of the Emperor Frederick II, who earned Nietzsche’s admiration, and he warns us against ‘the assumption that the politics of a Frederick II were like our own or, at least, shared with ours a rationality which the positivist historical school believed to be timeless.’ Mr Leyser does not fall into such a trap. His book is a collection of essays written over a period of twenty years, all characterised by the sympathetic presentation of a deeply alien world.

Dr McKitterick does not always show the same awareness of the perils of excessive rationality for the historian. Her preface presents her book as a ‘political narrative and analysis concerning the Carolingian kings, the aristocracy and the church in their social context’, written with the student audience in mind. There is room for such a work in English. The political narrative covers the three centuries before 1000, so she has a lot of material to organise. Her method of presenting events as ‘one damn thing after another’ sometimes results in a bewildering flow of names as petty kings pop up before the reader only to be swept away by equally ephemeral and faceless rivals. But when she gives herself a little more room, Dr McKitterick can offer interesting interpretations – of the fate, for instance, of Charlemagne’s pious uncle Carloman. The book has genealogical tables, useful for a period when politics meant dynastic politics, and a score of maps, also helpful, though some are extremely sketchy. The index is not useful. Since Dr McKitterick’s own research interests centre on Carolingian learning and scholarship, she has much to say on these matters, and it is good to be reminded of the intellectual achievements of an age racked by continuous warfare. Mr Leyser’s account of the price of horses for warriors in Saxony is counterpointed by Dr McKitterick’s remarks on the expense of fine-quality parchment.

You are not logged in