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.

Nevertheless, Dr McKitterick’s book is not the success that its author’s credentials might have led one to expect. Straight political narrative without much of the promised analysis can become fairly dull, and the rather flat and occasionally unclear prose does not help. Some sections of the book bear the marks of haste. Dismantling the Carolingian political world enables her to lay out its component parts like a good constitutional historian, but she does not put them back together to show us the machine in running order. Since the friction of Early Medieval politics was generated by the movements of parts within the whole, her picture is inadequate. In her preface she talks of the ‘continuous struggle of kings and nobles’. Thirty years ago J.M. Wallace-Hadrill’s classic textbook on barbarian Europe warned against the ‘black untruth’ of claiming a fundamental opposition between kings and their aristocracy. On Charlemagne’s grandson Dr McKitterick writes: ‘Whereas the lay aristocracy was divided in its loyalty to Charles the Bald, the bishops and the church backed him strongly.’ One sees what she is getting at but the somewhat tired assumptions about politics here are undermined by facts: one of the most famous traitors of the Middle Ages, Ganelon in The Song of Roland, takes his name from a treacherous archbishop in the time of Charles the Bald.

Dr McKitterick’s picture of Carolingian government is again static and too anachronistically ‘rational’ in its approach to institutions. When she writes that the power of these kings ‘depended on the respect they inspired by right and by tradition’, she is correct. But it is surely no accident that one member of the dynasty, the historian Nithard, wrote proudly of the respect that Charlemagne aroused by sheer terror. Dr McKitterick misses much of the non-administrative nature of Medieval institutions. As Mr Leyser succinctly points out, ‘the aristocratic following of a king was there because it was there.’ A king wanted people around him for company, drinking, hunting – all activities that came under the heading of government in the early Middle Ages. If Dr McKitterick misses some of these vital, day-to-day links between king and followers, she also misses the more exalted of the king’s circle. Her book contains hardly any reference to the function of saints in this society. She does not show how these people turned quite naturally to the supernatural when the ‘government’ was hitting snags down here.

Dr McKitterick remains firmly earthbound. Sometimes this can be useful. It is refreshing to read about Charlemagne’s coronation in Rome without being weighed down by debates on the massive, if nebulous significance of this for the future, but her refusal to accord any real significance to contemporary imperial ideology means that her account of Charlemagne’s last years, and of much of the reign of his son, is ill-proportioned and crude. In fact, Dr McKitterick seems rather suspicious of ideas in history. She spends a disproportionate amount of time telling us of the number and variety of books available in monasteries without telling us how this intellectual armoury was used in the debates of the time.

The book does not really put the Carolingians in their social context. The changing relations between lords and their dependants at this time are hardly touched on. Peasants appear in a couple of paragraphs and we are told that lack of evidence prevents us from assessing their masters’ treatment of them. This is just not on: Mr Leyser, for example, gives us an illuminating sketch of how lords ritualised their acts of charity to the poor to enhance their own power (though he understands that such acts were more than simply manipulative). It is very disappointing to find that she has so little to say on the Lady Dhuoda, a noblewoman of the ninth century who wrote a book of moral precepts for her son. Dr McKitterick says that the book shows Dhuoda as being ‘well-read and cultured’, but we really ought to be given an idea of the nature of that culture. It is a great pity that she did not take up Dr J.L. Nelson’s suggestion that Dhuoda’s stress on the role of the father in the family mirrored developments in the social structure affecting the world of politics – Dr McKitterick’s avowed concern, after all. But she is reluctant to touch on such themes.

Though Dr McKitterick is well-qualified to attempt the book we need, this work suffers from obsolescent assumptions about the politics of the period and a lack of interest in social relations. An excessive interest in manuscripts is not balanced by an ability to convey the sense of intellectual excitement generated in an age that had one thinker, John Scottus Eriugena, who has attracted the attention of both Helen Waddell and Leszek Kolakowski. The book fails to convey a sense of change in this period, a period that Marc Bloch took as the starting point for his great analysis of Medieval society.

With Mr Leyser’s book we enter the authentic world of the early Middle Ages. We don’t merely learn how an 11th-century count settled a feud (hanging his enemy by the legs ‘between two savage dogs until he was dead’): we learn why this was the right thing for him to do. Mr Leyser is aware that the very fact that we know of this ferocious episode tells us something more of this society than its propensity to violence: the recording of it ‘confronts us with literacy and this was only possible through christianisation’. Most of the pieces here have been published before, but it is good to have them in one volume. To the familiar papers on the military resources and exploits of Henry I (of the Empire) and Otto I, and on the ideological warfare of the 11th century, one is happy to see added an imaginative study of 12th-century kings, including an acid portrait of Henry I of England that should give pleasure to a readership wider than the technical nature of these pieces might suggest.

The book’s centre of gravity is tenth-century Germany, specifically Saxony, presented in a prelude as a world of starkly contrasted social classes and conditions that were nonetheless subtly bonded into a community, where saints, however, could intervene and upset earthly hierarchies. It is characteristic of the author that he sees such points of contact in terms of conflict and tension.

The survey of these flash-points is wide-ranging. Mr Leyser reviews the dealings between Eastern and Western Europe, between Empire and Papacy, between Germany and England, between Saxony and other parts of Germany, between rival clans within Saxony, between a king and his servants, between father and son, and between different elements of a man’s mind, as we emerge into the new atmosphere of the 12th century and find John of Salisbury caught between affirming and denying the values of a new kind of kingship. Mr Leyser is a masterly analyst of the web of contracts, group-loyalties and attitudes that enmeshed these people. His concerns crystallise in a description of the killing of Thangmar, half-brother of Otto I in 938. Thangmar had rebelled against Otto in a quarrel over their inheritance. Chased into a chapel, he laid his weapons down upon the altar in sign of surrender, but was slain by one of Otto’s vassals in a shocking transgression of tenth-century hierarchical values. Mr Leyser’s analysis uncovers the elements in conflict here: altar/weapons, king/rebel, brother/brother, lord/vassal. Mr Leyser’s imagination has long brooded over the killing of Thangmar, as his previous book – Rule and Conflict in an Early Medieval Society (1979) – showed. He demonstrates how people belonged to several communities at once and how political crises uncovered their contradictory loyalties. His magisterial ‘historical and cultural sketch’ of the German aristocracy, reprinted here, is an object-lesson for all manner of historians in its finely differentiated analysis of a social group.

These studies of social and mental relationships have a physical setting. The author relishes the concrete details of this world: the effects of famine on an army’s prowess, the changing weight of swords in the tenth century, the effort involved in travelling from Venice to Constantinople, the heavy snoring of Henry I, the angry silence of Henry II at Woodstock, unable to bring himself to speak to a recalcitrant bishop. These are not just colourful beads of anecdote strung on the thread of narrative: they are part and parcel of the author’s investigation of his chosen themes.

The world of Early Medieval Europe occasionally looms up in the modern imagination, sometimes deliriously as in John Kennedy Toole’s feverish vision (in his novel, Confederacy of Dunces) of Hrotsvitha’s reactions to TV, and of Boethius’s involvement in a porno racket, and sometimes with a more serious resonance as in Geoffrey Hill’s poems on Offa. Mr Leyser matches Hill in the intensity of his meditation on the meaning of the past, a past whose remoteness Dr McKitterick’s conventional approach confirms.

The paradoxical nature of Early Medieval society, so often illuminated by Mr Leyser, the disparity between the ambitions of that society’s élite educated class and the mundane reality that was the lot of all (that class included), the way ‘image’ and ‘reality’ flagrantly contradicted each other and yet moulded one another – such paradoxes are the explicit theme of the third book under review. Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society is an important collection of new essays by 13 of the pupils and associates of Professor Michael Wallace-Hadrill presented to him on his retirement from the Chichele Chair in Oxford. Despite the varieties of subject-matter and approach in these essays and of gender and age among the contributors, the degree of coherence claimed for this volume by the publishers certainly exists. The book’s concern and aims are stated by Patrick Wormald in the foreword: ‘The mutual interaction of intellectual ideas and social realities is arguably history’s most abiding theme. If this book takes that theme any further, it will be a proper tribute to a historian who never allowed pupils or friends to forget it.’ One of Professor Wallace-Hadrill’s most recent writings was a paper on ‘History in the Mind of Archbishop Hincmar’: this book can be seen as displaying a view of ‘History in the Mind of J.M. Wallace-Hadrill’. This is not to say that he would agree with everything in it, but the wide span of time covered and the range of problems surveyed are characteristic of the oeuvre of its recipient.

There is a tension in this book beneath the one indicated in its title: that tension generated by the effort of historians to create pictures of the past from the often flimsy and intractable evidence at their disposal, fragments shored against ruins. The Medievalist must take care neither to sink into rapt contemplation of fragments for their own sake nor to forget that exciting hypotheses have to rest on such evidence as we do possess. The contributors to this volume fulfil both requirements. David Ganz’s deciphering of bureaucratic shorthand in seventh-century Gaul enables him to cast light on the replacement of the Merovingian dynasty by the Carolingians, one of the major shifts in European political history. Patrick Wormald, in an ambitious and forcefully argued paper, attempts to probe for the origins of ‘Englishness’ among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; his discussion of 19th and 20th-century historians’ approaches to this problem is paired with examinations of cryptic mottoes on coins and of the fire-damaged transcripts of Medieval manuscripts.

Ability to use the evidence must be matched by ability to marshal it in presenting a case. In investigating the realities of bishops’ power in the Auvergne of the sixth and seventh centuries Ian Wood’s mastery of the evidence and strong sense of place permit him to follow a slow tracking-shot of the hills and cornfields around Clermont with a sudden zoom in on figures like the priest Epachius, ‘notable as a senator and as an alcoholic’. This paper is the model of a regional study in miniature, where geography, economics, the family and the supernatural are each given their full weight. If Ian Wood has the sense of geography appropriate to a modern scholar, Judith Mc-Clure’s stimulating paper on Bede (a dominating presence in the volume) shows that a scholar of the Dark Ages approached geography from a different perspective. She demonstrates, for example, that Bede’s understanding of the River Jordan’s function as a political boundary in the Old Testament coloured his references to the similar function of the Humber in his historical writings.

If Bede’s picture of Britain was shaped by what he learned from the Bible, surely this was right: after all, ideal and reality co-existed. Janet Nelson argues that the idealised picture of harmonious government in action at Carolingian assemblies which we find in some sources did actually represent contemporary reality. Her argument, however, takes great pains to avoid ascribing anachronistic notions of ‘democratic consent’ to Charles the Bald and her picture of Charles’s government is finely nuanced: she points out, for instance, the black humour, on occasion, of Charles’s dealings with his followers.

All Medievalists will find something in this book, and all the papers deserve to be read as each one casts light upon the others (for example, Michael Wood’s first-rate paper on Aethelstan, ‘An English Charlemagne?’, can be usefully juxtaposed with the papers of Wormald and Peter Sawyer). The book ends, fittingly, with Eric John’s evocation of the world of Abbot Aelfric, a scholar of the late Anglo-Saxon era. Fittingly, because that world already contained the seeds of its own dissolution, in the shape of the new ideas about how society was to be arranged, ideas which were, in the late 11th century, to sweep away the Early Medieval society that is the subject of this book.