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Politics and History in the Tenth Century
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  • 10 b/w illus. 2 maps
  • Page extent: 354 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.69 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 944/.01
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: DC36.98.R53 G54 2004
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Richer,--of Saint-Râemy,--10th cent.--Historiae
    • France--History--To 987
    • France--History--Capetians, 987-1328

Library of Congress Record


 (ISBN-13: 9780521834872 | ISBN-10: 0521834872)


On the second day of March 986, after a reign of more than three decades, King Lothar of west Francia died at the age of forty-five.1 Less than fifteen months later his son and successor Louis, just twenty years old, followed his father to the grave, his death perhaps the result of injuries suffered while hunting.2 Louis left behind neither sons nor legitimate brothers. Lothar’s brother Charles, duke of lower Lotharingia, thus pressed his own claim to the throne.3 His family, known to us as the Carolingians, had ruled the kingdom almost continually since the middle of the eighth century, but in the tenth century heredity mattered only so much in royal succession. The Frankish magnates elected – or more precisely, participated directly and actively in the succession of – their kings and, even if the power and prestige of the Carolingian line often led them to choose one of its scion, it was not unprecedented for them to raise a non-Carolingian to the throne.4 In the summer of 987, Charles was passed over when a gathering of magnates led by Archbishop Adalbero of Reims elected Duke Hugh Capet as their king. Hugh was anointed and crowned shortly thereafter, probably in July.5

   Hugh, who eventually lent his surname to the Capetian dynasty which ruled continuously until 1328, had been among the most powerful of the magnates for more than two decades and could boast a prestigious ancestry, even a royal pedigree.6 From the late ninth century, his ancestors, also known to us as Robertians, had both cooperated and competed with the Carolingians in the zero-sum game of power politics within the west Frankish lands.7 His father, branded Hugh the Great (†956), dominated the political landscape of west Francia during the middle decades of the tenth century.8 His grandfather Robert (922–923) had been raised to the throne and ruled briefly in the early 920s until he was killed in a battle with the Carolingian king against whom he and his supporters had rebelled. Thirty years earlier that king, Charles the Straightforward (893–929), had himself pressed a hereditary claim to the throne and become king in an act of rebellion against Robert’s brother, Hugh Capet’s great-uncle Odo, who ruled for a decade from 888 to 898.9

   Like both his great-uncle and grandfather, Hugh Capet had been legitimately elected and anointed. Like them, he also had to draw on his military talents and political connections if he wished to establish and secure his rule, for Charles of Lotharingia did not readily abandon his claim to the throne.10 In 988, Charles seized Laon which had been a Carolingian stronghold throughout the tenth century. And in 989, he took Reims with the help of his nephew, Arnulf, who had succeeded Archbishop Adalbero earlier that year. As Charles’ threat to Hugh’s rule grew, members of the Frankish political world were increasingly forced to take sides or, perhaps more accurately, to decide how committed they were to their allegiances. Aware of the potential risks and rewards they faced, they weighed their options, reflected on their obligations, and threw their support behind one or another of the men, at least until they had reason to believe that the risks were too great or the rewards insufficient. Then, in the spring of 991, with the conflict in an apparent standoff, the civil war came to an abrupt and, at least in retrospect, decisive end. Thanks to a dramatic sequence of events to be discussed in Part II below, Hugh held Charles safely in his custody, had Arnulf deposed from his office, and replaced him with one of his supporters, a learned and savvy man named Gerbert.11

In the wake of these events, a monk at the monastery of Saint-Remigius just outside Reims wrote and rewrote a history dedicated to Archbishop Gerbert.12 The monk was Richer; the history, his narrative of conflicts among the west Frankish magnates and rulers from the late ninth century to his own day at the end of the tenth. For the earlier portions of his work, Richer drew on a history of the church of Reims and, more extensively, on a set of annals, both written by Flodoard, a canon at the cathedral from early in the century until his death in 966.13 Richer may also have had recourse to oral testimony and written records no longer available to us: he likely relied on the former and on his own observations in his account of more contemporary events. Throughout, he found rhetorical and stylistic inspiration in the works of Roman historians and other ancient authors.14 All told, the history is an impressive and erudite work composed in one of the most dynamic intellectual communities of his day.15 It ranks with the work of Flodoard as one of the most valuable and important narrative sources for the study of early medieval France and, among select others, for the study of the tenth century. Yet it has not always been so regarded. Rather, its value and importance to scholars has varied and evolved with the development of modern historiography.

   Richer’s work exists in a single medieval manuscript which was discovered in the early nineteenth century.16 The manuscript is his autograph, the very manuscript he composed and revised with his own hand over the course of the 990s.17 In the 1830s, the text was identified and published in an edition which was greeted with excitement and interest by European scholars.18 The period from the death of Charles the Bald (†877) to the death of Hugh Capet (†996), that is, more or less the period covered by his history and this book, was viewed then as it often is now as the most obscure in the history of France.19 Richer promised to shed new light on this “dark age” and, as his editor prophesied, to emerge from the shadows of obscurity and “to take his place among the eminent historians of the Middle Ages.”20 Despite the initial and, in some cases, sustained enthusiasm for his text, scholars noted from the beginning that it contained a number of historical inaccuracies, especially in the portion of his history based on Flodoard’s annals. While some scholars overlooked these supposed “errors” or explained them away as the results of Richer’s own faulty sources, more frequently they saw in them an expression of Richer’s political biases.21

   Due to these supposed biases, Richer was caught in the crossfire of nationalistic scholarship in France and Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century.22 According to a number of German scholars, Richer expressed in his work a partiality for the Carolingian dynasty.23 This claim has typically been based on the convergence of two historiographical traditions. On the one hand, beginning with his first editor, they observed that Richer’s father served loyally two Carolingian kings and were therefore inclined to see similar loyalties in Richer.24 On the other hand, they claimed that Richer was a French nationalist who favored the Carolingians over the Ottonian rulers of Germany in their competing claims for control over Lotharingia, a struggle which resonated with the contemporary conflict between the German and French over the modern Lorraine.25 The French were generally more forgiving of such apparent partisanship.26 Against charges of Richer’s “French flightiness,” vanity, and patriotism, one prominent French scholar, who had himself studied in Germany, defended and celebrated Richer as the first true French historian and reveled in his “disdain for the Germans.”27 By the end of the century, however, Richer began to emerge from the fray as one of this man’s disciples depoliticized somewhat the text. He explained that Richer’s bias for the Carolingians with respect to the Ottonians had been overstated and that he did not express particularly strong Carolingian sentiments in any case. As an illustration of this latter point, he noted that Richer was generally receptive to the accession of King Hugh and that he was a disciple of Archbishops Adalbero and Gerbert who, respectively, orchestrated Hugh’s accession and sided with him in the civil war which followed shortly thereafter. In this view, often held still today, Richer is supposed to have been sympathetic to the Capetians and therefore to have shared the allegiances not of his father but rather of his masters.28 Nevertheless, he suggested that the inaccuracies were due less to the monk’s political prejudice or national sentiment than to a desire to imitate, albeit ineffectively, such great Roman historians as Sallust and Livy.29

   At the dawn of the twentieth century, Richer’s promise thus remained unrealized. His penchant for using classical models to structure his narrative and to put their words into the mouths of his own characters, together with his political biases, rhetorical flourishes, and tendency to present accounts of events that contrast or even conflict with those found in his own sources, frustrated and disappointed scholars on both sides of the Rhine who sought to develop an accurate narrative of tenth-century politics and the Capetian accession.30 Instead of entrance into the pantheon of medieval historians, this “imitator of Sallust,” as he was labeled by an editor of the text in the 1930s, was thus more or less cast aside as Flodoard’s ugly stepchild.31

   Yet, Richer’s account continued and continues to this day to inform significantly the master narrative of west Frankish politics, in particular the narrative of the last third of the tenth century, as scholars have, for lack of other sources, relied on it, at times uneasily or even unconsciously.32 Likewise, it has served scholars as raw material for thematic studies of one sort or another. Richer’s work has therefore been mined for studies of medicine, education in the tenth century, the lives and accomplishments of Archbishops Adalbero and especially Gerbert, autograph manuscripts, and the evolution of the medieval library in Bamberg, where it now lies.33 And over the past fifty years scholars have focused increasingly on Richer as an historian; in some cases, they have seen in his text an expression of the mentalité of his day. Their work has deepened not merely our appreciation of the historiographical traditions within which he wrote, his innovations with respect to those traditions, and his rhetorical practices and their place in larger intellectual developments of the tenth century, but also our understanding of kingship and national consciousness in the west Frankish kingdom of the tenth century.34 It has also revisited the question of Richer’s political orientation and, in some cases, has sought to reconcile the two divergent historiographical traditions about it, that is, to explain the presence in his work of material that has led some scholars to argue that he was partisan to the Carolingians and others, that he supported the Capetians. One scholar has, for instance, seen the apparent contradiction in Richer’s political sympathies essentially as the result of Richer’s own internal struggle with the elements of legitimate rulership; another as the manifestation of the development of an incipient national consciousness over the course of the tenth century when the west Frankish monarchy was increasingly dissociated from the Carolingians and their traditions and it came to be identified, instead, with the kingdom.35 Although such recent studies and imaginative hypotheses have informed this book and especially chapter 12, no fully satisfying explanation has yet emerged. Nevertheless, the continued attempts to identify and explain Richer’s political biases and, more generally, to exploit his work for such a wide range of topics and themes speak to an enduring optimism among scholars that this somewhat enigmatic text can and will offer up insights into the late Carolingian and early Capetian period, about which we know relatively little.

   There is good reason for such optimism. Despite some excellent work on Richer and a growing appreciation of him as a witness to the tenth century, many of the riches of his text have not yet been tapped. His work presents a unique set of opportunities to observe the creative processes of an early medieval historian and thereby to enter into his world. On the one hand, thanks to his own acknowledgments and the work of modern scholars, we know most of Richer’s written sources as well as the historical and literary models from which he drew rhetorical and stylistic inspiration. We can therefore compare his historical record with the accounts he found in his sources and thereby consider how he used those sources to develop his own narrative. Likewise, we can contemplate how his use of classical models imbued his narrative with layers of meaning.36

   On the other hand, we are fortunate to have his autograph manuscript which is among the earliest extant autographs from western Europe.37 With its layers of revision, the manuscript represents not a coherent whole but rather a frozen moment, perhaps the last, in the evolution of Richer’s work in progress. Study of its physical features permits us to distinguish the stages of his composition and thereby to discover, for instance, that the manuscript contains not merely Richer’s history, but also fragments of a “Gesta Adalberonis” and a “Vita Gerberti” which he had previously written and then fused into the history late in its composition.38 Likewise, the manuscript contains physical evidence which helps us to develop and propose an alternative explanation for some of the apparent contradictions that previous scholars have noted in his political inclinations. At the same time, it permits us to develop a more dynamic picture of what writing the history meant to him and his contemporaries.

   These opportunities presented by the manuscript and the text contained therein, particularly the opportunities available in the study of Richer’s manuscript, have not yet been fully exploited. With rare exception, scholars who have worked with the text have ignored the manuscript and relied instead on editions that conceal the chaotic reality of a text written in waves of composition and revision over the course of the tumultuous decade following the Capetian accession.39 At the most basic level, then, this book takes these opportunities to render more comprehensible this text so crucial to our understanding of not merely the political, but also the religious and intellectual culture of tenth-century west Francia, an undertaking all the more appealing now that the manuscript itself is easily accessible in a facsimile edition which appeared in 2000.40 But the object of this study is neither Richer nor his work per se. Instead, it takes that work as a point of entry into the author’s world. It asks what Richer’s work and the works of others can tell us about how he and his contemporaries in the religious and intellectual community of Reims dealt with the fallout from the civil war sparked by Hugh Capet’s accession in 987 and, more generally, how they engaged in the larger world of Frankish politics. As such, it tells the story of the end of Carolingian rule and the Capetian accession from a new perspective. At the same time, as the title suggests, it offers a sustained reflection on the relationship between politics and historical writing in the tenth century. Ultimately, as a case study, it aims to articulate new possibilities for the study of both early medieval politics and historiography and, for that matter, where the two meet.

The modern study of politics in the early Middle Ages evolved significantly over the course of the last century from an attempt to develop accurate political narratives, often driven by nationalist agendas, into the study of the norms and texture of what can be termed “political culture.” During the past two or three generations, traditional boundaries distinguishing social, institutional, legal, religious, intellectual, and political history have been blurred. In studies that focus more and more on the legitimation, demonstration, exercise, or experience of power in local, regional, and even national contexts, scholars have come to ask how politics worked and what sorts of seemingly extra-institutional norms and strategies guided people’s behavior and circumscribed political order. Even as this scholarship has deepened our understanding of the medieval world, the foundations of that understanding have been somewhat shaken in recent years as scholars have grappled with an epistemological conundrum fundamental to historical inquiry:41 can our source material give us direct access to the world it appears to describe or is it merely textual representation or even mediation without clear resonance in an historical reality of that world? Stated otherwise, is there a social reality in textual representation and, if there is, how do we access and discuss it?

   Although in different guises, such questions manifest themselves in two current debates that have significant implications for our grasp of medieval political culture and the workings of power, debates in which Richer’s work has been marshaled as evidence, at times for opposing positions.42 The more wide-ranging of the debates concerns the extent, even the existence of a “feudal revolution” in the decades on either side of the year 1000:43 do the transformations we see in our sources represent a fundamental and relatively abrupt change in the social and institutional fabric of western Europe, as has typically been supposed, or instead, as has more recently been suggested, a change in the ways that those who wrote our sources represented the reality around them? In other words, do the changes we see in our sources represent a change in language, rhetorical convention, or representation within a society whose social and institutional complexion remained essentially unchanged, or do these changes describe or reveal more profound social and material transformations? A somewhat more narrow but no less charged discussion focuses on the meaning and function of political ritual and, in particular, on its utility in our attempts to understand better politics and the workings of power:44 do the reports of rituals we find in our sources provide us with access to customs, conventions, and norms that governed political life and expectations? Or are they more likely to represent a mode of communication replete with symbolic meanings understood, even created, by the authors of our sources, meanings not necessarily accessible to or shared by the supposed participants in and audiences for the events they are supposed to describe?

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