Chapter 6: Northern Europe in the Early Middle Ages

The Western Germanic Kingdoms

THE Early Middle Ages in the West tend to be described as the “Dark Ages,” a pejorative term that masks the complexity and importance of this period. As we have seen, the period from the third century onwards was marked by a significant transformation of the Roman world. The coming of Christianity, the political, social and economic crises of the third century, the reconstruction of the Empire in the fourth century, and the collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century were steps in a general transition from the world of antiquity to the Middle Ages. Old institutions were either transformed or lost, depending on their utility within the new order. The major distinction between the West and the East is that while in the latter “Roman” society remained more or less intact, in the West it was significantly altered through contact with the Germanic tribes who created the successor states to the western Empire. These new states were characterized by a mix of Roman, Germanic, and Christian elements, and the combination of these different cultures was in part responsible for the unique proportions of Western civilization in the post-Roman world.

During the late fourth and fifth centuries eastern Germanic tribes dominated the West. The oldest Germanic kingdom was that of the Visigoths in Spain. For a brief time in the fifth century, the Visigoths had been the hegemonic power in the West while their kingdom was based at Toulouse. The defeat of the Visigoths by the Franks, however, and the subsequent vacancy on the throne robbed them of this title. Rather, the Ostrogoths assumed leadership of the Germanic world. Until the defeat of the Ostrogoths by Justinian, the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy played a leading role, and through marriage alliances and diplomatic ties united the eastern Germanic kingdoms of the Goths, Vandals and Burgundians. By 600, however, the Ostrogoths had been defeated and Italy was divided between Byzantine forces, centered in the Exarchate of Ravenna and outposts in the south, and those of the Lombards. While the Eastern Germanic Visigoths remained in power in Spain until the early eighth century, increasingly western Europe came to be dominated by western Germanic tribes.

The period of migrations and invasions destabilized existing social patterns, even for people who did not undertake mass migrations. In areas such as Alemannia and Bavaria, the invasions by Hunnic armies in the fifth century, the collapse of the Roman political and economic structure, as well as the rise of new states under the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Lombards and ultimately the Franks all contributed to the collapse of old elites and the creation of new local social structures. Changes in marriage alliances, initiated by changes in political and economic patterns, created new kin groups. For those Germans who did move into new areas, there necessarily followed a disruption of old kinship structures.

Law codes provide an important form of evidence for the changes that followed the migrations. As was the case after the creation of Greek colonies in the seventh century B.C., without the old kinship organization, migrants were forced to codify their values into law. Roman law, whether formal legal codes or the vulgar law of the provinces, provided both a model and a language for the writing of these laws. The creation of written law codes was closely linked to both the spread of Christianity and the adoption of Roman political ideas by barbarian peoples. Law-giving was a royal function, and the power to legislate gave Germanic kings a kind of authority that heretofore had been restricted to the emperors. The codes of the Franks, Goths, Burgundians, Lombards, Anglo-Saxons, Bavarians, Alemans, and Thuringians have all survived and present us with a picture of Germanic society in the period immediately following the establishment of the various barbarian kingdoms.

The laws of King Æthelberht of Kent were written “according to Roman examples” (juxta exempla romanorum). Æthelberht’s laws may be broken down into three major groups. The first section deals with the protection of the Church, and emphasizes the sovereign’s concern for the spiritual well-being of his subjects. The next eleven clauses relate to the powers of the King, in particular his role as the protector of free men, his servants and followers, and the nature of his sovereignty. Sections thirteen through seventy-two concern the feud. In Germanic society, the right of free men to resolve conflicts through feuding was not questioned. The law worked to control and restrict private violence rather than eradicate it. Royal officials were interposed as arbitrators in disputes or to aid injured parties in finding malefactors and bringing them to justice. One mechanism in these laws intended to limit violence was the institution of Wergeld. Each person was assigned a monetary value based on their class, gender, and social status. If one was injured, the guilty party was expected to pay the family a portion of the victim’s wergeld proportional to the severity of the injury. Such regulations ensured a role for royal magistrates in assessing the seriousness of a crime, and also provided the crown with a source of income through fines.

The Origins of the Frankish Kingdom

THERE are good reasons why a Gallic kingdom would become the hegemonic power in the West. First of all, the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar in many ways laid the foundations for the establishment of the Roman Empire. Throughout the Julio-Claudian era, the primary focus of imperial activity, as measured in military action, was along the Rhine frontier. The interior of Gaul was almost thoroughly “Romanized,” although significant Celtic survivals should be noted. Moreover, there remained a sense that Gaul “needed” an emperor. According to the fifth century historian Eutropius, after the legitimate emperor Gallienus abandoned Gaul to conduct campaigns in the East, Romano-Gallic nobles established a “Gallic Empire.” Postumus, a Roman administrator and provincial military commander, ruled as Gallic Emperor from about 260 to 268. He was succeeded by another officer, Victorinus, who ruled until 270 and may have extended his authority into Britain as well. Until Diocletian established his co-Augustus Maximinian as Emperor in the West, Gaul remained essentially under the control of various “native usurpers,” as a Greek historian put it. The last usurper was defeated by Maximian’s caesar, Constantius, in 296. Thereafter Constantius’ son, Constantine the Great, used Gaul as his power base. Trier became an imperial capital, and even after the foundation of Constantinople, his successors maintained a high profile in Gaul. The last Roman Emperor who might as well be considered a “Gallic” Emperor was Julian the Apostate. Julian appears to have intended to secure Gaul as an essential part of the Roman Empire. As Notker’s life of Charlemagne testifies, the role of Julian in Gaul was considered significant for the rise of the Franks, in part because Julian granted a certain legitimacy to the Salian’s claims to being the successors of Rome when he agreed to settle them in Toxandria. Julian’s call to the East and subsequent death on campaign, however, brought an end to a significant imperial presence in Gaul. In the late fourth century the usurper Constantius III (another Arthurian archetype) established another “Gallic Empire.” The last putative Gallo-Roman state was the so-called “Kingdom” established by Syagrius in northern Gaul. According to the Frankish historian Gregory of Tours, it was Clovis’ conquest of the Kingdom of Syagrius in 486 that marked the beginning of the Salian conquest of Gaul and the Frankish hegemony in the West.

There are several reasons why it would be the Franks in Gaul, rather than the Goths in Gaul or Italy, who would create the leading successor state to Rome in the West. Much of this has to do with the developments of Frankish society before the Franks came into Gaul.

It has been argued that the formative period for Germanic kingship occurred before the invasions. When we compare the Franks with the other leading Germanic people of the late fifth and early sixth centuries, the Ostrogoths, we can see some marked differences deriving from their pre-invasion experience. Gothic kingship developed during the period of their migrations from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and then later after their defeat by the Huns. Throughout this period (second through fifth century) the Goths, and later the Ostrogoths, skirted the edges of the cultural frontier. Their political institutions developed with only minimal Roman influence. Indeed, the primary influence on Ostrogothic kingship prior to the accession of Theodoric the Great was Hunnic. They adopted an heretical form of Christianity largely because at the time of their conversion, they lived on the fringes of the Roman, and hence orthodox Christian world. The Franks, by contrast, emerged in the culturally homogeneous border zone along the Roman and Germanic frontier. Their society changed gradually in almost constant direct contact with Rome. Moreover, one can perceive a “Germanicization” of the Roman side of the frontier during the period after Constantine, largely through the settlement of Germanic Laeti to provide a buffer between the more strictly “Roman” interior of Gaul and the frontier. There were no Laeti in the East, hence the distinction between “barbarian” society beyond the frontier and “Roman” society within was not nearly so marked in the West as it was along the Danubian frontier. It also followed that the Franks were much more likely, as in the case of Arbogast, to become orthodox Catholics rather than heretical Arians, owing to the fluid nature of the cultural frontier. The Franks, then, were better suited to be absorbed into Gallic society than the Goths were in either Italy or southern Gaul, where the cultural distinctions between Roman and Goth was profound.

As mentioned earlier, Frankish domination in Gaul was accomplished largely through the efforts of the Salian King Clovis (482-511). During his reign, the Salians went from being one of the weaker federates in Gaul to one of the leading Germanic peoples in the West. Heretofore, Frankish expansion was largely held in check by the Visigoths through their alliance with the Thuringians against the Franks. With the death of the Visigothic King Eurich, however, the Visigoths were in a weaker position. Clovis used this weakness to extend his influence into the buffer zone between the Franks and Visigoths after defeating Syagrius in 486/7. After this victory, Clovis secured an alliance with Theodoric the Great, marrying his sister Audofleda. Thereafter he undertook a series of campaigns against the Visigoths, culminating in his victory over Alaric II at Vouille in 507. Clovis defeated the Alamanni in 497, securing his control over this region with the bloody suppression of a revolt in 506/7. The Thuringians were defeated in a campaign dated 492 or, more likely, 506. Although Ostrogothic intervention prevented Clovis from gaining control of the Burgundian kingdom, he countered by abandoning his alliance with Theodoric the Great and instead formed a pact with Byzantium. The Eastern Emperor Anastasius granted Clovis the title of “Consul,” allowing him to assume the regalia and title of king.

It was before one of his battles, and it is still uncertain which one, that Clovis, a pagan, supposedly saw a vision of an angel who offered him a lily as a symbol of God’s support for his cause. Clovis allowed himself to be baptized as a Christian, and the lily came to be the symbol of the French monarchy. Clovis converted to Catholicism, unlike most of his contemporary Germanic Kings who were Arian Christians. Unlike the contemporary Gothic kingdom of Theodoric, there was no religious distinction to separate the king from his subjects. Rather, Clovis could draw on the ranks of the Gallo-Roman ecclesiastical elite to serve him as administrators. Christian scholars codified Frankish law, producing the Pactus Legis Salicae, or Salic law. Thereafter, Clovis called a synod of Gallic bishops to meet at Orleans in 511 to reform the church and create a strong link between the crown and the Catholic episcopate. It is possible that this synod was called by Clovis imitating the Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine after his conversion to Christianity. Clovis chose the Gallic town of Paris as his capital, much as the first Christian Emperor had created a new capital at Constantinople. Indeed, the Frankish historian Gregory of Tours hailed Clovis as “the new Constantine.”

Even so, it seems most likely that the Christian God chosen by Clovis was just another in his pantheon. During the period of Merovingian rule, the role of God became twofold: that of the God of Battles and as an almost magical force which had to be furthered for the safety of the realm. Papal and other clerical theorists stressed that God would help those who would help Him. The Germanic warrior ideal was thus transformed into the ideal of the warrior for Christ. St. Martin, though not Germanic in any sense, nonetheless provided a good model for the Christian soldier. In the second case, the ideal found in the book of Samuel that the spiritual quality of the king determined the physical security of his people matched the pagan idea that kingship was sacred. The royal dynasty, the Stirps Regia, was invested with a quasi-magical power, and only those of royal blood could rule. Through his sacral power, the king insured the personal well being of his subjects, the fertility of the fields, and the preservation of peace. This last theme requires certain clarification. For the newly converted Frankish kings, the God who had given them victory had to be served as well, and the best service that one could offer to God was to destroy His enemies. In such a context, war was peace, since only through the continual destruction of God’s enemies could the divine order be preserved. As a sign of their position, the Merovingian kings never cut their hair, and hence became known as the “long-haired kings” (Reges Crinitii). The notion that long hair symbolized the spiritual authority of the king was a pagan tradition, but had a handy Christian parallel in the biblical story of Samson. Hence here too, pagan and Christian ideas could be combined to strengthen the ideology of kingship.

The Merovingian kingdom essentially comprised two parts. North of the Loire river was the Frankish, Germanic part of the kingdom. It was here, in the area between Paris and the Rhineland, that the power of the Merovingian kings was concentrated. By the late sixth century, this area had been formally divided into two sub-kingdoms. To the west was Neustria, the new kingdom, centered on Paris. In the east was Austrasia, the older Frankish realm beyond the Rhine. South of the Loire was Aquitaine, the remains of the old Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse. Aquitaine retained an essentially Roman character throughout the Merovingian period. Indeed, the Frankish kings had very little influence in this region until the eighth century.

When Clovis died, he divided his kingdom between his four sons: Theuderich I (511-534), Chlodomer (511-524), Childebert I (511-558), and Chlothar I (511-560/61). His reason for so doing was two-fold. Popular political thought held that the proximity of the kings, and hence their sacral power, was necessary for ensuring the well-being of his people. On a more practical level, in an age of poor communications, it was useful for administrative reasons to divide the realm into sub-kingdoms. Throughout, the fundamental unity of the regnum francorum was never questioned. The kings pursued a uniform foreign policy, aimed primarily at conquering Burgundy and obtaining an outlet to the Mediterranean. As might be expected, Theodoric the Great wished to maintain Burgundy as a buffer state between Italy and the Franks. He also made alliances with the Thuringians to prevent further Frankish expansion into the east. But the Ostrogoths could not prevent the conquest of Burgundy, which was completed in 534. After this the Ostrogoths were consumed in their attempts to prevent Justinian from reconquering Italy. The Ostrogothic king Witigis ceded Provence to the Franks in 536 in the hope of obtaining a Frankish alliance against the Byzantines, but to no avail. Rather Theuderich I and his son, Theudebert I (534-548) took advantage of the Gothic-Byzantine conflicts to crush the Thuringians and Alemans. Thereafter, Theudebert occupied Bavaria to secure his eastern flanks, preparatory for the invasion of Italy.

It would appear that Theudebert I desired to seize Italy as part of his plan to become the new Roman Emperor. He adopted the title of Augustus and began to issue gold coins in his own name, heretofore an imperial privilege. His most ambitious scheme called for an alliance with the Lombards and a joint attack on Constantinople. After his death, however, Theudebert’s son Theudebald I (548-555) abandoned these plans. Frankish control over Gaul and Germany was still tenuous, and the dukes appointed over the Alemans, Leuthari and Butilin (Bucelin) showed that they had their own plans. In 553, Bucilin led his own campaign in Italy against both Goths and Byzantines.

The Frankish kingdoms were briefly reunited under Clovis’ youngest son Chlothar I, but upon his death, Chlothar chose to again divide the kingdom among his four sons. The eldest son, Charibert I, died in 567. Thereafter two of his brothers — Sigibert I in Austrasia and Chilperich I in Neustria — began fighting over his legacy. In 574, Chilperich’s wife, the notorious Fredegund, arranged for the assassination of Sigibert. Sigibert’s widow, the Visigothic princess Brunichildis, immediately assumed power in Austrasia, ruling as regent for her son Childebert II. For the next twenty years, Fredegund and Brunichildis remained bitter and implacable enemies, and the number of nobles and princes assassinated on their orders was legion. After Childebert II died in 596, Brunichildis retained her authority, ruling in the name of her grandsons Theudebert II and Theuderich II. Her authoritarian manner, however, angered many of the nobility. They had profited greatly from the fratricidal wars of Sigibert and Chilperich I, and upon the latter’s death, aided his son Chlothar II (584-629) in his efforts to defeat the Austrasians. Both of Brunichildis’ grandsons were killed in campaigns against Chlothar, and the crown fell to yet another child, Brunichildis’ infant great-grandson Sigibert II. In the end, a conspiracy of Burgundian and Austrasian nobles captured Brunichildis and handed her over to Chlothar. On his orders, the great queen was torn apart by wild horses.

His treatment of his aunt notwithstanding, Chlothar II proved to be a good king. His two major concerns were the nobility and the church. In 614, Chlothar called a meeting of nobles and a synod of bishops in Paris. The main concern of the nobility was the office of count. Originally the counts (Latin comes civitatis, Germ. grafio) were appointed to govern particular cities or provinces (comitatus; Germ. Gau). Under pressure from the nobility, Chlothar was forced to concede to their demand that in future he only select his counts from the leading noble families residing in that province. In this way, the old Roman office of comes civitatis was Germanicized, losing its institutional significance as the count ceased to merely be a royal official. Instead, the counts became princes in their county, taking for themselves some of the powers of government previously reserved for the crown. Chlothar fared better dealing with the bishops. Despite canons requiring the free election of bishops, Chlothar was able to ensure that in future bishops would only be chosen from the members of his own court. The synod also condemned simony (the sale of church offices), in part to defend diocesan officials and local priests from noble influence. So while Chlothar was forced to grant greater autonomy to the nobles, he ensured close cooperation between the church and the crown.

The close ties that emerged between the Frankish church and the crown make the early seventh century a turning point in the political history of the Merovingian kingdom. Whereas Clovis might be best considered a war-chief leading his war band, the seventh-century kings, to quote Wallace-Hadrill “move into an ecclesiastical atmosphere.” For Chlothar II and his son Dagobert I (629-638) royal power did not so much derive from blood, but was rather God-given. The king was an instrument for the protection of the church as God’s representative on earth. Furthermore, drawing on the inspiration of such biblical figures as David and Solomon, the Frankish kings perceived that they had a duty to punish the wicked and assist the good by furthering justicia and æquitas. This meant in part a commitment to maintaining peace and order within the kingdom, but also the extirpation of heathenism and heresy beyond the nominal boundaries of the regem. Their ethos was fundamentally imperial, and looked far beyond the narrow scope of “barbarian” kingship.

The Rise of the Pippinid Dynasty

DAGOBERT I was the last of the great Merovingian kings. The chief chronicler of the seventh century kingdom, Fredegar, described the late Merovingian rulers as “lesser beasts,” while modern historians have given them the epithet “rois fainéants“: the lazy-bones kings. Two trends may be noted during the last century of Merovingian rule. First was the rising power of the nobility, particularly in the outlying portions of the kingdom. Second, power tended to be held by the mayors of the palace (maior palatii). The office of maior palatii had its origins in the early sixth century. The division of the realm between heirs, coupled with the fact that the kings often needed to travel throughout the kingdom to maintain and secure their authority, ensured that there was no fixed capital. Rather, the Merovingians ruled out of a number of palaces, each at the center of a royal estate. This was true as well for Anglo-Saxon England, and our word “town” derives from the Anglo-Saxon term for such estates, “tun.” Each palace was administered by a mayor, who acted as an estate manager. As time progressed, the power of leading mayors, in particular those in Neustria and Austrasia, increased. By the mid-seventh century, the mayor of Austrasia, Pippin of Landen, acting in conjunction with Arnulf, the Bishop of Metz, rivaled the kings for power.

Pippin and Arnulf represent two important figures for the later history of the Frankish monarchy. Both were the representatives of important Austrasian noble houses with long ties to the crown. Arnulf and Pippin were instrumental in organizing the resistance to Brunichildis and were richly rewarded by Chlothar II. Dagobert was set up as king in Austrasia at the age of ten by his father. Arnulf was named as the boy’s tutor, while Pippin became mayor of the palace at Metz. For the next few years, until Chlothar’s death in 629, Pippin and Arnulf ruled in Austrasia. Thereafter, Arnulf retired to live out the rest of his life with a few monks in isolation, while Pippin assumed full responsibility over the administration of the eastern kingdom.

Pippin found himself opposed by several other Austrasian noble families. First, there were the Agilofingers, who would later become the dominant family in Bavaria. Other rivals included the Gonduins of Burgundy and the Adalgesils. The ambitions of these rival clans were given substance by Dagobert’s decision to move Pippin to Neustria to serve in his court in Paris. Austrasia was assigned to Dagobert’s son Sigibert. Allies of the Gonduins were chosen as the boy’s tutor and as Duke of Thuringia. The capital was transferred to Cologne, then in the hands of the Adalgisel family. The death of Dagobert allowed Pippin to displace his rivals, however. After negotiations with the Archbishop of Cologne, Pippin ensured that the great Austrasian nobles would recognize Sigibert, now only ten years old, as king with Pippin as mayor. The triumph was short lived, however, as Pippin died a year later in 640.

Pippin of Landen was survived by several children, the most important of whom were his son Grimoald and his daughter Begga. The latter married Arnulf’s son Ansegisel and bore a son, named Pippin after his grandfather and generally known as Pippin of Heristal. Grimoald succeeded to his father’s position as mayor of the palace at Metz. In this capacity, he faced several problems. First of all, the royal treasury remained in Paris, under the control of Dagobert’s eldest son, Clovis II, and his mother. Second, the office of mayor was in the hands of Otto, an ally of the Gonduins. During a disastrous campaign against the Thuringians, however, Grimoald earned the king’s trust by saving his life. With Sigibert’s approval, Grimoald contracted with an Alamann to assassinate Otto, and subsequently assumed his father’s old position as mayor of the palace in Austrasia.

Once secure in Austrasia, Grimoald began to lay plans for an outright seizure of power. Sigibert III had failed to produce an heir, and Grimoald was able to convince the king to adopt his own son, giving him the Merovingian name of Childebert. Shortly thereafter, Sigibert did produce an heir, whom he named Dagobert after his father. Upon Sigibert’s death in 656, Dagobert II was only a young child, and Grimoald was not prepared to leave the throne to him. Consequently, Dagobert was tonsured and sent off to a monastery in Ireland. Childebert, Grimoald’s son, now reigned as king in Austrasia. Clovis II died in 657, preventing an immediate Neustrian response to Grimoald’s actions. By 661, however, the Neustrian nobles, led by Clovis’ widow, Queen Bathilde, and the mayor of the palace in Neustria arranged for the murders of Grimoald and his sons. Pippin of Heristal, “duke” of Austrasia and Grimoald’s heir, attempted to avenge his uncle’s death, but was defeated by the Neustrian mayor on several occasions. Fortunately for Pippin, the Neustrian mayors’ policies angered the leading nobles in both kingdoms. A group of Neustrians, led by Bishop Reolus of Reims, turned to Pippin to gain his support against the ruling mayor, Berchar. At the battle of Tertry in 687, Pippin defeated Berchar. His victory made him sole mayor of the palace, and gave him control over the Merovingian king and the treasury.

Pippin of Heristal “reigned” as mayor of the palace from 687 until his death in 714. During that time, he was master of the entire Frankish kingdom — Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy — ruling in the name of king Theuderic III. By and large, his reign was free from war and serious revolts, and earned for him and his dynasty the respect of most noble houses. After his death, it was essentially assured that control over the Frankish kingdom would remain in the hands of his son, Charles Martell, and his heirs, known to posterity as the Carolingians.

The Spread of Roman Christianity

THE extension of Frankish power was closely tied to the extension of Christianity. We must keep in mind that in late antiquity, Christianity was essentially an urban phenomena. Although there were churches and bishops in Gaul, they were mostly found in towns. The conversion of the king did not necessarily mean a mass conversion of the people; rather, Christianity had to be spread in the countryside and into areas that lay beyond the reaches of Roman Christianity. In newly Christianized regions, the power of the king was enhanced through the power of the church. Missionary sees became the focus of royal estates and administrative centers, and the power of bishops over their sees resembled that of nobles over their counties.

The first Frankish missions were directed at Frisia and modern Holland. The establishment of churches in Ghent and Antwerp was largely the work of St. Eligius, Bishop of Noyen from 641 to 660. Eligius, however, was building on foundations laid down by Irish missionaries. The first important Irish mission to the continent was led by St. Columbanus (543-615) a monk from Bangor who arrived in Frisia in 590. He established a monastery at Luxuil which became a sort of “monastic capital” of Gaul, and coordinated his missionary efforts with the papacy. He continued his mission in Switzerland and southern Germany, setting up churches in Zurich and Bregenz on the Lake of Constance. Among his disciples were St. Gall, who established one of the most important monasteries in the west in Switzerland, and St. Kilian, who founded a mission at Würzburg on the Main in central Germany. These Irish monks trained a second generation of missionaries from Gaul and Germany, who christianized Bavaria. St. Emmeran (Haimbramm) was a Frank from Poitiers who founded the diocese of Regensburg in the late seventh century. His contemporary St. Rupert (Hrodbert), an Alamann trained by Irish missionaries, founded the diocese of Salzburg.

The major impact of these missionaries was not simply their conversion work, but their concern for pastoral care. Unlike the Frankish bishops who received ecclesiastical offices on account of their services as courtiers, the Irish were well trained in theology and languages. Their monasteries, unlike the Frankish foundations, were centers of learning, and produced educated priests to serve the laity. The Irish also introduced auricular confession and wrote penitentials to aid priests in determining the seriousness of various sins. Such innovations stressed the responsibilities of priests for the care of souls (cura animarum) rather than their skill as estate managers. The result of their mission was the spread of more evangelical Christianity, which lay greater emphasis on individual salvation.

The Irish missions on the continent coincided with the spread of papal authority in the West. The rise of the Roman church in the West may be attributed largely to the work of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). Gregory was born in 540, the member of an important senatorial family in Rome. By that time, the Byzantine conquest of Italy was essentially complete. The center of Byzantine Italy, however, was not Rome but Ravenna. Had Gregory been born there, it is likely that he may have pursued a career in the civil service, but in Rome there were few opportunities for a bright young man other than the church. Although he had been given the title of imperial prefect by the Emperor Justin II in 574, Gregory abandoned his post to become a monk. He turned his father’s palace into a monastery and founded six other convents, organized according to St. Benedict’s rule. From 579 to 585, Gregory served as the papal nuncio, or ambassador, in Constantinople. His mission was to plead with the Byzantine Emperors for help against the Lombard invasions. A serious famine had resulted from a Lombard siege of Rome, claiming as one of its victims Pope Benedict I. The new Pope, Pelagius II, hoped that Gregory could convince the Emperor to send supplies and troops. Gregory’s mission ended in failure, and shortly after his return to Rome, famine struck again, this time carrying off Pelagius. Gregory was elected as his successor in 590.

Gregory the Great initiated several important reforms. Perhaps his most important work was the liber regulae pastoralis, written as a handbook for bishops. Gregory complained that far too many sought to become bishops that were “in no way divinely called, but inflamed by their own desire.” Such ambition — Gregory calls it “lust of pre-eminence” — contradicts the “humble” nature of the magistracy, confounding the message of Christianity as “one thing is learnt and another taught.” “The conduct of a prelate,” Gregory writes, “ought so far to transcend the conduct of the people as the life of a shepherd is wont to exalt him above the flock.” From Gregory’s perspective, monastic discipline, in particular the rule of St. Benedict, ought to provide the standard of conduct for not only monks, but bishops and priests as well. To this end, he reformed the diaconate in Rome, increasing the number of deacons from nineteen to twenty-four and incorporating monastic features into their training. Many of these deacons went on to become bishops in Italy, and they adapted the monastic ideal for the administration of their own cathedrals and the training of priests. This program reveals two aspects of Gregory’s pontificate. First of all, he sought to ensure the unity of the Christian church by establishing a uniform liturgy and ritual in the church. Later churchmen attributed to Gregory the credit for composing all of Gregorian chant, which provided a common standard for liturgical music. Gregory also tried to ensure that each church celebrated Easter at the same time, establishing a universal church calendar. A second aspect of his reform, however, was his policy of personnel management. He used his legal prerogatives, both as first bishop and, according to the Pragmatic Sanction of 554, as a leading official in the government of Byzantine Italy, to purge the episcopate, removing bishops who he did not feel were either orthodox or effective, replacing them with priests drawn from his own diaconate. Within Italy, the episcopate came increasingly under papal patronage. As to his ideal of a “good” bishop, Gregory felt that they ought to maintain the same sort of ascetic habits as the monks. Beyond that, Gregory wrote “you know that at this time such a one ought to be constituted in the citadel of government who knows not only how to be solicitous for the safety of souls, but also for the eternal advantage and securing of his subjects.”

Gregory was not satisfied to limit his efforts to Italy, however. During his pontificate the Visigoths and Lombards both rejected Arianism and embraced the Catholic faith. Although the latter conversion has in part been attributed to Gregory’s influence over the Lombard Queen, Theudelinda, it is not clear whether either Pope or Queen were able to convince the Lombard kings to convert. Likewise, in the end, it was a synod of Spanish bishops, meeting in Toledo, who presided over Spain’s entering into communion with Rome. In fact, Spain soon developed its own liturgy, and until the conquest of the Visigothic kingdom by Islam in 711, the Spanish church, though nominally Catholic, remained firmly under the control of the king and the council of bishops. In Gaul, Gregory had little success in bringing the Frankish church under his control. Although he maintained close ties to Brunichildis, the Frankish bishops and their kings paid little heed to Rome. As it turned out, Gregory’s most successful foreign endeavor was the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons.

The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was accomplished through the efforts of one of Gregory’s deacons, St. Augustine of Canterbury. It should be noted, however, that Augustine was not the first missionary to England. Since the sixth century, Irish missionaries had been evangelizing in England, and in some parts of western Britain, it seems likely that Christianity had survived from Roman times. The difference is that St. Augustine’s mission was planned from the start to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Catholicism and erect a church administration with ties to the Roman see. Augustine’s objective was Kent, ruled by a pagan king named Æthelberht. Æthelberht was married to a Frankish princess. Kent was allied to and politically dependent on the Frankish kingdom, but Æthelberht was clearly looking for some options. Accepting Christianity from Rome established ties between his rather insignificant kingdom and one of the leading powers of the Mediterranean world. After setting up a church, Augustine’s monks began to assume administrative positions, drawing up charters on the Frankish model, and writing down laws. The laws and other legal documents confirmed Æthelberht’s authority in his realm. Moreover, as Augustine began to extend his mission into the rest of England, Kent achieved a new prominence as the center of the church in England, second only to Rome in importance. Consequently, both in domestic and foreign affairs, Æthelberht’s dynasty was given a permanence and significance it had previously lacked through his acceptance of Christianity from Gregory. And for Gregory’s part, the papacy now had extended its patronage network into the furthest reaches of Western Europe.

The authority of Rome in the English church was solidified in the following generation. Initially, Augustine established three sees in England: Canterbury, Rochester, and London. In 625, Bishop Paulinus of Rochester was consecrated as Bishop of Northumbria. Edwin, King of the Northumbrians, had married a Kentish princess and indicated that he might be interested in changing his beliefs. Paulinus baptized him in 627, but with Edwin’s death, a pagan reaction drove Paulinus and his missionaries out of Northumbria. Thereafter, the mission to Northumbria was taken over by Irish monks from Iona, led by Aidan (d. 651). Aidan established the monastery at Lindisfarne, and over the next few years converted the Northumbrians. This eventually led to conflicts between the Irish and Roman missions. In 664, a synod met a Whitby to resolve doctrinal disputes between the two churches. Bishop Wilfrid of York debated with Colman, the Abbot of Lindisfarne, on the proper date of Easter. Following the Eastern church, the Irish argued that Easter had to fall after passover, following the authority of St. John, various church fathers, and St. Columba. Wilfrid countered that the Roman usage derived its force by the unique authority of St. Peter, prince of the Apostles. His question was this: ought we follow the teachings of Peter or Columba? The king made his decision “with a smile” and supported Wilfrid’s argument. Under Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury (669-658) the authority of Canterbury and, by extension Rome, was extended over the Northumbrian church.

After the synod of Whitby, Anglo-Saxons took over the Irish mission to the continent, though not by design. In 677 Wilfrid had a dispute with the Queen of Northumbria, who convinced her husband to deprive him of his see and confiscate his property. Archbishop Theodore offered no help, and instead divided Wilfrid’s diocese into three new sees. Wilfrid left to plead his case in Rome, but was driven off course and landed in Frisia in 677. He began preaching to the Frisians and soon attracted the attention of the king. Wilfrid spent the better part of 678 at the court of Dagobert II and formed a close relationship with the Frankish king. Thereafter he went on to Rome where he gained papal support for his mission. He was able to return to England in 685, but thereafter, several Northumbrian priests followed his lead and journeyed to the continent as missionaries.

One of Wilfrid’s disciples was Willibrord (d. 739) who began a new mission in Frisia in 690. He soon gained the financial and political support of Pippin of Heristal. In 695, Pippin sent Willibrord to Rome at the head of a personal embassy. The Pope consecrated Willibrord Bishop to the Frisians and at the same time established close ties to Pippin himself. Under Pippin’s patronage, Willibrord consecrated more bishops and sent missions to the Saxons and Thuringians. Although the former failed, the Thuringian Duke Heden (d. 717) converted and became an ally of Pippin. The end result of the missions of Wilfrid and Willibrord was to form a three way alliance between the Pippinids, the Anglo-Saxon missionaries, and the Papacy. The results of that union would be no less than revolutionary.

 

Charles Martell and Boniface

THE successors of Pippin of Heristal and Willibrord were Charles Martell and St. Boniface. Together, they formed the alliance between the church and the Carolingian dynasty extending the authority of the Carolingians over all of Gaul and Frankish Germany.

Charles Martell was the illegitimate son of Pippin of Heristal and hence had some difficulty ensuring his control over the Frankish state. He was faced with two major rivals, the Neustrian mayor Ragenfrid and his ally, Duke Eudo of Aquitaine. In 717, Charles defeated his Neustrian enemies and in 720 forged an alliance with Eudo. What provoked the turn in policy was the invasion of the Saracens. Islamic forces had overrun the Visigothic kingdom of Spain in 711, and by 720 were making raids into Frankish territory. Although Eudo was able to defeat them alone at Toulouse in 721, he failed to repulse a second invasion four years later. In 732 came the great Arab invasion of Aquitaine. Eudo was unable to halt their advance and turned to Charles for support. On October 25, 732 Charles and Eudo defeated the Saracens near Poitiers in one of the most decisive battles of world history. Charles became the savior of Europe, and quickly turned this military success to his advantage.

In the years following Poitiers, Charles solidified his control over Burgundy (733-36) and Provence (737-38). The death of Eudo in 735 allowed him to extend his authority in Aquitaine.

While Charles conducted his campaigns in the west, missionary activities in the east continued under his patronage. Pirmin “the Apostle of Alemannia” reorganized the Swabian church according to Frankish models. Charles’ primary concern in this mission was to reassert Frankish authority over the Alamannic Duke Lantfrid (710-730) who issued new law codes under his own name and stressed the independence of his people from the Franks. Likewise, missions were organized to secure Frankish control over the churches in Frisia, Hesse and Thuringia.. This task was given to the Anglo-Saxon monk Wynfrid, born in Wessex in 675. After a brief stay in Frisia (716) Wynfrid went to Rome in 718 and 722. During his second visit he was consecrated bishop and given the Roman name Boniface (Bonifatius). Thereafter, Boniface directed an extensive mission in central Germany.

As with Willibrord’s visit to Rome, Boniface’s two meetings with Pope Gregory II (715-731) were also intended to cement relations between the mayor of the palace, in this case Charles, and the papacy. Gregory II had two concerns which led him to seek an alliance with the Franks. First of all, he was under increasing pressure from the Byzantine emperor Leo III to enforce iconoclasm in the west. Second, the Lombard King Luitprand (712-744) had embarked on a series of campaigns intended to subdue the southern duchies of Spoleto and Benevento and thence to seize the Byzantine exarchate of Ravenna. Gregory began to address Charles as “patrician of the Romans” after 724, and implored his aid against the Lombards. Charles refused, and instead made alliances with Luitprand against the Byzantines. Still, from the reign of Gregory II onwards, the papacy recognized Charles and his heirs as the leading princes of the West and sought their support against the eastern emperors.

In 732 Boniface was named archbishop, and eventually chose the ancient see of Mainz as his capital. With support from Charles Martell, he organized a major synod in 739, aimed at reorganizing the Bavarian church and bringing it under Frankish leadership. Still, the Carolingians long struggled with the Bavarian rulers for dominance in ecclesiastical affairs.

The Carolingian Revolution

CHARLES Martell died in 741. According to his will, his domains were divided between his two sons, Carlomann and Pippin “the Short.” Immediately the brothers were faced with revolts in Aquitaine and Alemannia. These were quickly suppressed. Thereafter, they began to consolidate their control over the kingdom. To that end, Boniface was given leave to continue his reform of the church. Under his leadership and with Carlomann’s support, Boniface presided over a series of synods in East Francia in 742 and 743, convening a general synod at Soisson in 744.

The basic elements of Boniface’s reforms may be summarized as follows. First of all, it was decreed that priests and other clerics ought to live in a manner worthy of their vocation. They should not bear arms, fight in tournaments, or behave like nobles. Secular clerics should wear distinctive clothing, just as monks did, and should follow essentially monastic discipline. Part of this involved taking vows of celibacy. Second, the synods underscored the authority of bishops over the clergy in their dioceses. Third, the synods issued general condemnations of superstition and pagan rituals. Beyond these purely religious concerns, however, was the question of church property. Charles Martell, like his father, secularized much church land in order to reward his followers. At the synod of Estiennes (743) the inviolability of church property was upheld, but the basis for a compromise worked out. Excepting churches that were destitute, it was agreed that a portion of church lands should be available to distribute in the form of precarial grants, traditionally given by the church to those in need. After the death of the tenant, the mayors of the palace could reassign the lands to either the heirs of the previous tenant or another person of their choosing. The church would receive a fee, a quit-rent, from the tenant in return for the land.

In addition to these reforms, Boniface organized four new bishoprics within the archdiocese of Mainz at Würzburg, Buraburg, Erfurt and Eichstätt. These, along with the abbey of Fulda, founded on lands given to Boniface by Carlomann, lay on the frontiers of Germany and provided staging areas for missionary and military forays into the east.

In 747, Carlomann retired to a monastery, leaving Pippin as sole ruler. Pippin took Boniface under his patronage and through him began to pursue negotiations with Rome over the status of the Carolingians in Francia. At this time the Roman see was held by Pope Zacharias (741-752), an able diplomat faced with serious problems. The Lombard king Luitprand had died in 744, and his successor Ratchis agreed to a twenty year truce with the papacy. Unfortunately, Ratchis became a monk and left the crown to the ambitious Aistulf (749-56) who overran and annexed Ravenna. Zacharias received an embassy from Pippin, where Fulrad and Burchard negotiated with the Pope to gain his support for transferring the crown from the Merovingians to Pippin and his heirs. Zacharias agreed and commissioned Boniface to anoint Pippin and crown him at Soisson in 751. The last Merovingian king, Childeric III, was tonsured and shut away in a monastery.

Insofar as tradition held that the Merovingians ruled on account of the sacral authority held by members of the stirps regia, the translation of this sacral authority was not a simple act. Unction, or anointing the king with holy oil, provided a means for imparting God’s grace and was practiced by the Christian kings of England and Spain. This sacramental practice was taken from the book of Samuel. Samuel called out Saul and anointed him signifying that he had been given the power to rule by God. When Saul became evil and lost sight of God, Samuel anointed David to be King, thus through the act of unction transferring the sacral power from Saul to David. The Latin term for this transferral was translatio imperii. Under this revised political theory, the new king was king not on account of his royal blood, but by the Grace of God: Dei Gratia.

After his coronation, Pippin became increasingly involved in Italian affairs. When Aistulf laid siege to Rome in 753, Pope Stephen II fled to Gaul, and met with Pippin personally on Frankish soil in January 754. At that time, Stephen personally anointed Pippin and his two sons, Charles and Carlomann, and again granted him the title “Patrician of the Romans.” At Stephen’s behest, Pippin conducted a campaign against the Lombards in 755, capturing their capital at Pavia. Aistulf died the following year, and Pippin gave to the papacy the lands formerly held by the exarch of Ravenna, granted to the papacy as the “patrimony of St. Peter” ( patrimonium petri). This grant would lay the foundations for the formation of the Papal States.

After the coronation of Pippin, Boniface was pushed to the margins of political life. He returned to Frisia as a missionary, and was hacked to bits by the heathens in 754. He was subsequently canonized. Archbishop Chrodogang of Metz took up Boniface’s mantle as reformer, and revised the liturgy of the Frankish church. He introduced Roman liturgy and established a schola cantorum at Metz to teach the cantilena romana to young priests. He later composed a rule for canons, the Regula Canonicorum to provide standards for the operations of the episcopal administration. He also continued Boniface’s project of making the Benedictine rule the “official” monastic rule for the Frankish church. Chrodogang ensured that there was a high degree of uniformity of doctrine and practice within the church, replacing regional heterodoxy with universal, Catholic orthodoxy. These reforms were continued in the next generation by Benedict of Aniane, whose interpretations of the Benedictine rules would themselves inspire the reformers of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne

PIPPIN ruled from 751-768. After his death, his kingdom was divided between his sons Carlomann and Charles. The historical sources all agree that there was little love between the two brothers. When Charles was faced by a serious revolt in Aquitaine, Carlomann would not come to his aid. Tensions grew between the brothers, and a civil war was only prevented by Carlomann’s death in 771. Thereafter, Charles reigned as sole king of the Franks for another forty-three years until his death in 814. By that time, he was already known as Charles the Great, Carolus Magnus, Charlemagne.

The reign of Charlemagne can be broken down into five general periods. The first, lasting from 768 to 771, saw him trying to resolve internal conflicts. The Aquitainian revolt was the only major internal disturbance of his reign. Thereafter Charlemagne embarked on a series of conquests that nearly doubled the size of his kingdom.

The second phase of Charlemagne’s reign opened with a campaign against the Lombard King Desidarius. Pope Hadrian I (772-795) asked for Frankish aid against Desidarius, and after a short campaign, the Lombard king capitulated. In 774, Charlemagne was crowned King of the Lombards. He then turned his attention to the Saxons. He had mounted a small raid into Saxon territory in 772, essentially a “search and destroy” mission intended to secure the border. After the Saxons attacked Hesse in 774, however, Charlemagne decided to mount a large scale campaign, intending to not only conquer the region, but to Christianize it as well. After two years of bitter fighting, he annexed Saxony, dividing it into three lordships. A new missionary diocese was established at Paderborn in 777, and Abbot Sturmi of Fulda was selected to coordinate missionary efforts. Mass baptisms of Saxons followed the campaigns, but in the end, the “conversion” of Saxony proved ephemeral. In 778 the Saxon chief Widukind led a large scale revolt against the Franks. Charlemagne’s forces suffered another defeat that same year at the hands of the Saracens and their Basque allies in Spain. At the disastrous battle of Roncevaux, the rear of the Frankish column was ambushed and annihilated. The defeat provided the basis for the Song of Roland, and marked the end of the second phase of the reign.

During the third period of conquests (779-793) Charlemagne martialed his resources to subdue the Saxons. Although he was able to suppress the rebellion in 780, Widukind fled to Denmark, and with their aid led another uprising in 782. The Franks suffered serious defeats, and the missionaries were driven out. Charlemagne followed with a campaign of devastation. Saxon villages were burnt, and at Verden in 784, some 4,500 Saxon prisoners were beheaded. Seeing that further resistance was useless, Widukind submitted in 785 and was baptized. Following this campaign, Charlemagne issued the “terror capitulary” (Capitulatio de partiubus Saxoniae) which imposed serious penalties on the Saxon people. Most crimes were punishable by death, and for the next seven years the Franks ruled Saxony with an iron hand.

Another Saxon rebellion in 793 opens the fourth period of Charlemagne’s reign. After six years of ferocious warfare, the Saxons were defeated. Forced baptism, slaughter and deportation were the order of the day. Nonetheless, the opposition of some churchmen to the Frankish policy led Charlemagne to rescind the “terror capitulary” and issue a more mild set of laws. The capitulare Saxonium of 797 replaced the death penalty with fines in most cases, and allowed the Saxons to live under their own law. Drawn up by Frankish clerics, the new redaction of the Lex Saxonum was issued in 802. Churches and monasteries were founded that would later provide the foundations for the dioceses of Verden, Minden, Osnabruck, Hildesheim and Halberstadt On other fronts, Charlemagne led a campaign against the Avars in 795-796, completely destroying their kingdom and seizing their treasury. Missionaries from Salzburg and Bavaria were sent out to convert the Avars and their Slavic subjects. Along the frontier, Charlemagne set up the eastern march, or Ostmark, the region we know as Austria.

After 800, Charlemagne worked primarily to consolidate his conquests. The major event of this period was his coronation as Emperor on Christmas Day, 800. The background for his coronation had been laid down some years before. Already at the time of his first Italian campaign, Pope Hadrian I had hailed Charlemagne as “the new Constantine,” and his chief advisor, the Anglo-Saxon cleric Alcuin, praised his king as the “new David.” Charlemagne began to adopt some of the titles used by the eastern emperors, calling himself rex et sacredos, following eastern practice. Two events, however, hastened the imperial coronation. After the death of Hadrian in 795, the new pope, Leo III, needed Charlemagne’s protection from his own people. In 799 Leo was nearly assassinated in Rome and fled to Paderborn. The second event was the coup d’ etat staged by the Empress Irene in 797. From a Frankish perspective, Irene’s seizure of the imperial throne created a vacancy since a woman could not rule. Theodulf of Orleans, a theologian in Charlemagne’s court, wrote that “the weakness of her sex and the fickleness of her feminine heart do not permit a woman to exercise supreme authority in matters of faith and rank.” Consequently, there appeared to be a moral imperative driving Charlemagne to assume the imperial title. On December 1, 800 an assembly of Frankish and Italian bishops met in Rome. After resolving the disputes between Leo and his people, the synod agreed to proclaim Charlemagne “Emperor” on December 23. His coronation followed on Christmas Day. As might be expected, Byzantium did not initially recognize his claim. However, after several palace intrigues, disastrous campaigns against the Bulgars, and various other disasters, Emperor Michael I realized the futility of claiming overlordship in the West and recognized Charlemagne as Emperor in the West.

Governing Charlemagne’s Empire

CHARLES the Great ruled two separate kingdoms, the Regnum Francorum and the Regnum Langobardorum. These had different administrative traditions and institutions, and for the duration of the Carolingian Empire, they remained, for all intent and purpose, distinct realms, sharing only a common sovereign. Within the Regnum Francorum, the Carolingians ruled through a combination of Bannus and Consensus. The first represented the king’s power “to command or to prohibit and to punish any transgression of his orders of prohibitions.” (Ganshof) It also involved his protection of the church, of widows and orphans, and of the miserabiles personae. Subjects, whether noble or common, were sworn by oath to obey the king. Since Merovingian times, all subjects were required to swear an oath of fidelity to the king. Such an oath, sworn in God’s name and generally given with one hand on a Bible or holy relic, was sacrosanct. Any subject who broke his oath and refused to obey the bannum of the king could be punished with death. Moreover, breaking the oath implied taking the Lord’s name in vain, and constituted the sin of perjury. In this sense, bannus was not purely “political” power, but also represented the spiritual authority of the king as both rex and sacredos. After his imperial coronation, Charlemagne was able to place even greater weight on the second part, as he was God’s elect and the leader of Christendom.

It has often been argued that consensus marked a legal limit of the king’s power. Legal enactments were read and approved by the nobles in regular meetings, the diet or Reichstag. It would be a mistake, however, to see these gatherings as “parliaments” in the late medieval or modern sense. Rather to give one’s consent (consentire) simply meant to give compulsory recognition that a royal decree was consistent with the law, and then to swear to uphold it. In other words, there was no legal means of dissent. Consensus was merely the formal acceptance of the king’s right to legislate, the recognition of his bannus.

The primary form of legal enactment under the Carolingians was the capitulary. Ganshof defines this as “a decree first agreed upon (consensus) and then orally promulgated, divided into articles (capitula) and used by the Carolingian rulers to publish legislative or administrative measures.” These were known by a variety of other names — constitution, decretum, edictum — but the most common term was capitulum. They were issued at various times under specific circumstances, to institute wide ranging reforms, create new offices, or provide the foundation for the governance of a newly annexed province.

The center of government was the royal palace, the palatium publicum. Previously, the Frankish kings maintained no fixed capital. Rather, the kings and their courts were ambulatory, regularly processing through the kingdom and staying at a host of royal estates or monasteries. Charlemagne, by contrast, tended to fix his court in one location. He ruled from Heristal until 784, then moved the court to Worms where it remained until 791. In an effort to emulate the eastern emperors, Charlemagne built a capital for himself at Aachen in 794, and from 807 until 814 the royal palace at Aachen was the sole imperial residence.

The chief officers of government were the officers of the household. The “chief of staff” was the seneschal (sene scalus, lit. “old servant) who was responsible for provisioning the palace and overseeing its daily operations. He was assisted by the butler (buticularius) who supervised the kitchen and household staff. The chamberlain (cammerarius) had the care of the kings’ living quarters as well as the treasury. The constable (comes stabuli) was, true to his title, the count of the stable and looked after the king’s horses. He also directed the defense of the palace and was assisted by several marshals (marescalus). The counts palatine (comes palatii) acted as royal justices, insofar as royal palaces were also the site of royal courts. The counts palatine was also responsible for drawing up legal documents, diplomas and placitum. The clergy of the household included the chaplains (capellani) and their assistants. Under the Carolingians, the chaplains tended to be clerics of high rank, and included Archbishop Angilram of Metz and Archbishop Hildebold of Cologne. Since only clerics were literate, the lower clergy in the chapel served as notaries. They were known as notarii or cancellarii. The later term — chancellor — eventually came to refer to the cleric responsible for supervising the scriptorium and royal archives, and would come to eclipse the chaplain in political significance.

Beyond the palace, the kings were represented by a host of officials known as the missi dominici. These were commissioned by the king to execute his judgments or decrees in a particular region. There were two types of missi. The missus ad hoc was an individual sent during times of crisis to a specific region, usually for a fixed term. The “ordinary” missi were sent in large groups with a more general mandate to oversee the administration of territories. There they often were at odds with the counts, appointed by the crown from the local nobility to maintain order and justice in their county. They held their office by the grace of the crown, and received little compensation for their service, aside from one-third of the profits of justice and perhaps some small estates. Along the frontiers, counts were often titled “dukes” indicating their primary function as military commanders, as well as “counts of the march,” margrave, Markgraf, or marquis.

The court at Aachen was not only the administrative, but also the cultural center of the realm. Alcuin was appointed to organize a palace school to train future bishops and other officials. It should be noted that, contrary to popular belief, the schola palatina of Charlemagne was nothing new. Pippin the Short had maintained a similar school at Utrecht, and Boniface, in addition to his missionary and reformist activities, wrote a Latin grammar. What Alcuin did was centralize higher learning in one place, and, with the wealth taken from the Avars and other conquered peoples, fund the creation of a well supplied and well endowed institution of learning. The pupils were linked to their masters — Alcuin and the king — by close ties of patronage and the emotional bonds that connect teacher and student. The significance of this for governance was that in the absence of strong institutions, these personal ties bound the officials educated at court more closely to the crown.

The palace school, along with other monasteries, were the focus of the “Carolingian Renaissance,” during which classical manuscripts were collected and transcribed in a new and more legible script, known as Carolingian Minuscule. The purpose for this revival was two-fold. On a practical level, the study of these manuscripts led to improved standards of Latin grammar and composition, crucial since Latin was the language of government and religion. Second, by preserving and emulating classical Latin writings, Charlemagne was able to more closely identify himself with the ancient Roman emperors. The success of this aspect is debatable. As Fichtenau writes “Alcuin’s wisdom could make people more learned but it could not really help them. Ignorant of the internal and the external needs of mankind, these scholars were under the illusion that they were missionaries when they were no more than propagandists.” Still, the long-term significance of the Carolingian renaissance should not be doubted:

It must be said again, however, that this criticism, however justifiable, does not detract from the real significance of these imperial `paladins’; for their achievement as the preservers and transmitters of a cultural inheritance was quite extraordinary. Today, after more than a millennium, we owe a debt of gratitude to them.

 

The Division of Charlemagne’s Empire

CHARLEMAGNE was succeeded by his son Louis the Pious, a king of some ability, but certainly not of the same calibre as his father. Moreover, Louis was forty-six when he became Emperor, and had several grown sons, each seeking to rule themselves. Louis initiated several reform programs aimed at emphasizing the unity of his Empire. He commissioned Benedict of Aniane to continue the reform of the imperial church. He also issued the Ordinatio Imperii in 817, which stated that only his eldest son Lothar would succeed him as Emperor, and to that end crowned Lothar, appointing him co-regent after the Byzantine fashion. Primogeniture, however, was an alien concept to the Franks, and Louis’ other sons — Pippin, Charles the Bald, and Louis the German — demanded their own lands with the support of some nobles. Faced with their opposition, Louis was forced to partition the kingdom, granting Pippin Aquitaine, and giving Bavaria and the Ostmark to Louis the German. The sons revolted against Louis and Lothar in 830 and 833, leading to the confrontation of “the Field of Lies.” There, the Emperor’s army defected to a coalition of his sons, Pope Gregory IV (827-844) and some bishops. Louis the Pious was stripped of his office and forced to “do penance” for his sins at the monastery of Soissons. Ultimately, he was liberated by a group of nobles, but at his death in 840 his sons were poised for civil war over his legacy.

Initially Louis the German and Charles the Bald allied against Lothar. In 842, Louis, Charles, and their entourages met at Strasbourg to swear oaths of mutual support. The Strasbourg oath is a notable document as it indicates the growing division between the eastern and western halves of the Frankish realms. The nobles who accompanied the two kings were made to swear the oath in the language of their new allies. Hence, the East Frankish retinue of Louis the German swore the oath in “verba romana lingua,” the Roman tongue, while Charles’ men swore the oath in German. The “Roman” text reveals that the language of the West Frankish kingdom was a dialect that was not quite Latin, but not yet French. The Old High German of the East Frankish nobles is a distinct dialect from that spoken by the Franks of the previous generation. Hence the linguistic identities of the nobility in the two Frankish kingdoms had diverged both from strictly “Frankish” or “Roman” origins.

Not long after the agreement at Strasbourg, the united armies of Charles the Bald and Louis the German confronted and soundly defeated Lothar at Fontenay. They then marched on Aachen, occupied the palace, and forced Lothar to negotiate a partition of the Empire. With the Treaty of Verdun, negotiated in 843, Charlemagne’s Empire was divided into three realms. Charles received the west Frankish kingdom while Louis ruled the east Frankish kingdom. Lothar retained the title of Emperor and ruled Lotharingia, a region running between the kingdoms of Charles and Louis connecting the two imperial capitals of Rome and Aachen. This treaty is often said to mark the division of the Frankish kingdom into France and Germany. In the end, the partition did not resolve the conflict, and civil war continued. Moreover, shortly after the treaty, all three kingdoms were faced with a series of invasions by the Danes.

England in the Eighth Century

ONE of the major dynamics of continental history during the eighth century had been the attempts by the Carolingians to unite the Frankish monarchy under their leadership and to extend its powers over neighboring lands. The conquest and integration of Aquitaine, Alamamnia, Bavaria, Saxony, and other realms into the Frankish kingdom underscore the political and religious policies of Carolingian rulers. Likewise, several rulers vied to unite the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England into a single unified monarchy.

Anglo-Saxon England was broadly divided into two zones. North of the Humber River lay Northumbria, a region known from at least the seventh century onwards as the nation of the Northumbrians (nordanhymbrorum gens). South of the Humber lived the Sutangli or southern English. While Northumbria was a more or less united kingdom, the south was divided into six kingdoms: Mercia, East Anglia, Kent, and the kingdoms of the West Saxons (Wessex), East Saxons (Essex) and South Saxons (Sussex). Together, these kingdoms comprised the “Heptarchy” of Anglo-Saxon England. The relationship between these kingdoms is comparable to that between the Lombard Duchies and the German “Stem Duchies” of pre- and post-Carolingian times. Periodically these were united under a great king, the Bretwalda, styled in Latin as Rex Britanniae. Bede lists seven kings who were recognized as overlords over all of Britain, beginning with Ælle, king of Sussex in the late fifth century, ending with King Ine of Wessex (689-726). Ine was a first generation Christian — his father Caedwalla had been baptized in Rome — and issued the first law code for Wessex. He abdicated in 726 and retired to a monastery in Rome. Thereafter, Wessex passed to five kings of uncertain lineage and little ability. Mercia emerged after that time as the leading kingdom in the south.

The first great Mercian king was Æthelbald (716-757). He was closely associated with the missions of St. Boniface, whom he supported with alms and gifts. At the same time, Æthelbald’s scandalous private life was a cause for embarrassment among the Mercian clergy on the continent. In 746/47 Boniface and other Anglo-Saxon clerics abroad wrote the king and demanded that he amend his ways. Their letter was partially successful — Æthelbald issued a charter granting extensive privileges to the churches in his realm in 749. Still, his conduct eventually led to a feud with an abbess who arranged his murder in 757.

Æthelbald was succeeded by his son Offa (757-796), under whose leadership Mercia united all of England. He was able to subdue the kings of Kent and Sussex and reduce them to nobles in his retinue. A charter from 772 refers to a “duke” named Osmund. This same Osmund is named in an earlier charter as “king.” Wessex was a more difficult case, and only after a campaign in 779 was Offa able to occupy most of Wessex. The West Saxon king was killed on the battlefield, and a conflict between rival claimants broke out. Offa married his daughter to Beorhtric, a man with a slim claim to the throne, and drove the rightful heir, Ecgbert, into exile. Ecgbert fled to Charlemagne’s court where he remained until 802. Since Beorhtric was completely dependent on Offa, it was an easy matter to unite the two realms.

After the conquest of Wessex, Offa was able to force the Northumbrians to recognize his suzerainty. Thereafter, Offa was able to title himself Rex Anglorum or even Rex totius Anglorum patriae, a phrase rendered into Old English as Ealles Engalandes Cyning. As an expression of his power, Offa created the greatest public works project of the Anglo-Saxon period, Offa’s Dyke. The Dyke was a wall that ran the entire length of the Welsh border, from Chester to Bristol. The initial purpose of the Dyke was defensive. Welsh raids prompted four major campaigns in 760, 778, 784 and 796. The later campaigns, however, became increasingly offensive in nature and it would appear that Offa intended to assert his dominance over the Welsh principalities as well.

As an expression of his authority, Offa attempted to create his own archdiocese at Lichfield in order to limit the power of the Archbishop of Canterbury in Mercia. In 787 Offa had his newly created Archbishop anoint him and his son Ecgfrith, following the unction of Charlemagne’s sons by the Pope a few years earlier. In fact, after 780, Offa was the only ruler in Europe who could attempt to deal on equal terms with Charlemagne. Relations between them were not particularly good. Offa refused to recognized Charlemagne’s claim to authority over England. When negotiations between the kings broke down completely in 789, Charlemagne closed Frankish ports to English merchants.

This little incident indicates that there was notable cross channel trade during Offa’s time. This was in part facilitated by Offa’s reform of the coinage. He introduced the silver penny as the basic currency. These were issued in his name and were widely used throughout England and the continent. There was also apparently some trade with the Moors. A single gold coin, imitating the issue of Caliph Al-Mansur of 774, has been found. Such a coin, complete with Arab calligraphy, would only have been produced for Arab consumption, since the West was on the silver standard.

After the death of Offa, much of his accomplishments were lost. The archdiocese of Lichfield was suppressed in 803, and his arch rival, Ecgbert of Wessex, emerged as the leading ruler in England. After returning to Wessex in 802, Ecgbert obtained the submission of Kent, Essex, Surrey, and Sussex. In 825, with their support, he led an invasion of Mercia. The Mercian king was subsequently murdered, and by 829, Ecgbert had conquered all of Mercia and its dependencies. In that same year, Northumbria submitted in order to prevent an invasion. Although Mercia staged a revolt in 830, it never could recover full autonomy.

 

The Viking Invasions

THE creation of the Carolingian Empire and the unification of Anglo-Saxon England were noteworthy accomplishments, but were hardly lasting achievements. Both kingdoms still had deep internal divisions, both culturally and politically, which were revealed in the course of the ninth century. Indeed, at times, it appeared that all the accomplishments of the eighth century would be lost when Europe was faced with a series of invasions from the northmen.

The origins of the Viking invasions are obscure, but several “causes” might be noted. In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, overpopulation and internal strife seem to have marked the period from 600 onward. In Norway, contention between rival kings and nobles (Jarls) led to the exile of many high-ranking personages. The unification of most of the Norwegian kingdoms under Halfdan the Black and his son Harald Fairhair in the second half of the ninth century forced many sub-kings and Jarls to seek their fortunes abroad. During the mid-eighth century, some of these displaced leaders sought lands to colonize. The Faroe and Shetland Islands became Norwegian colonies during this period. As time went on, however, they began to press into settled areas, such as Ireland, and later England. The churches of these regions became a source for booty that could be used to finance wars at home. In this sense, the raids were precipitated largely by internal conflicts.

The Norwegians first centered their attacks on coastal areas of England and Ireland. In 753, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports a raid by some Norwegians in northern England. In 793 another group of Norwegians sacked and burned the great monastery of Lindisfarne. They first raided Ireland in 795, and thereafter intensified their assaults. After 800, the tendency was to establish bases which after mid-century became centers for colonization. The Norwegians founded the city of Dublin, which became the staging area for raids and settlements throughout the lands bordering the Irish sea: Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and the islands along the western coast of Scotland.

The Danes focused their attentions on the eastern coast of England and the northern coast of Europe. The pattern of Danish raiding followed closely that of the Norwegians but was also deeply influenced by events outside of Denmark, in particular the Carolingian conquests. The conquest of Frisia and later Saxony brought the Franks into direct contact with the Danes. Moreover, until their conquest, Frisian merchants and pirates prevented the Danes, whose primary theater of action was the Baltic, from penetrating into the North Sea. With the conquest of Frisia, however, the barriers to Danish access to the North Sea were removed, and the area was open to trade and conquest.

The Danish attacks on the Empire were, in part, a product of long standing enmity between them and the Carolingians. The conquest of Saxony by Charlemagne seemed to pose a threat to the Danes. He had destroyed Irminsul, the sacred pillar of the world, which, according to the Saxons upheld the universe. He had proclaimed at Quierzy that any Saxon who refused to embrace his Christian faith would be executed. The massacre of 4,500 Saxons at Verden seemed to prove this. Forced conversions of Saxons and the “terror capitulary” of 785 provided a signal to the Danes that Charlemagne was a grasping, dangerous enemy to be feared and respected. It is consequently no surprise that in 777 the Danish king Sigfred offered Widukind of Saxony asylum and supported his resistance to the Franks. Sigfred died in 800, and was succeeded by Godefred, a king of great skill. Following the final conquest of Saxony by the Franks in 804, Godefred staged a series of military maneuvers off the Saxon and Frisian coasts as a warning to the Franks. He then attacked and defeated the Slavic Abodrits, allies of Charlemagne, and forced them to pay tribute. In the process, he destroyed the Slavic trading town of Reric.

The destruction of Reric indicates an aspect of Godefred’s policy. The main source of his power was his control over the Baltic trade. He supported the growth of a major trading town at Hedeby, which became a focus for the export of Scandinavian iron and copper to the continent. The town was strongly fortified — perhaps the best protected town north of the Alps — and lay across a number of major roads. After 800, Hedeby’s defenses were incorporated into a larger defensive work, the Danevirke. This was a wall, similar to Offa’s Dyke, built across the whole of the Jutland peninsula. It was intended to protect Hedeby and Denmark from further Frankish assaults.

From 804 onwards, it appeared that Godefred and Charlemagne were on the brink of war. Godefred was assassinated in 810, however, and his successor agreed to a peace treaty. Thereafter followed several years of civil war between the sons of Godefred and rival claimants to the throne. Louis the Pious took advantage of these quarrels to invade and in 815 overran much of Denmark. The Danevirke was breached, but the bulk of the Danish army was able to withdraw to the islands, protected from the Franks by a powerful fleet. Louis withdrew, but was able to secure the submission of the Danish king Harald Klak. Harald accepted Christian baptism and in return gained Louis’ support in his conflict with Horik, Godefred’s son. After several years of struggle, Horik briefly accepted Harald as co-regent but drove him out after 827. Harald received lands in Frisia, and it is possible that Louis the Pious hoped to settle Danish exiles in this region to protect his kingdom from seaborne attack. It is true that from 820 onwards the Danes made a few isolated raids. These, however, were more a by-product of Horik’s attempt to solidify his control over Denmark than signs of concerted, planned aggression. A raid on Frisia in 834 was clearly directed against the Frankish kings, while other raids were conducted by “pirates” and open enemies of the Danish kings. To some extent the Franks contributed to these conflicts, as through their support of Harald Klak and other dissidents. This presaged the raids between 834 and 842, when large Danish flotillas, mostly under royal command, attacked the Frankish trading cities of Dorestad and Noirmoutier at the mouth of the Loire. In 842, the Danes undertook combined operations against England and France.

Harald Klak brought missionaries to Denmark after his conversion, most notably St. Anskar. Horik, though not a Christian, acquiesced to the spread of the new religion, and allowed Anskar to continue his mission to Sweden. Anskar was consecrated bishop of the new diocese of Hamburg in 831. Until 840, the mission went well, but after the death of Louis the Pious, Horik saw in the quarrels among his sons the opportunity for revenge. In 845 Horik sacked Hamburg. Although Anskar escaped, his church, school, and library were destroyed. In an attempt to show there were no hard feelings, Horik allowed Anskar to build a new church at Hedeby. At least this church would be in Denmark and not, like Hamburg, in the Empire.

Horik was killed by his nephew Guthrum in 854, leading to a succession crisis. Thereafter, until the tenth century, Denmark was plunged into anarchy. From the death of Horik until the accession of Gorm the Old (936) it is unclear if Denmark was at any one time ruled by a single monarch. Rather, various petty kings vied for power. For the next hundred years, most contacts with the Danes involved their offensives overseas, and the colonization of lands in England and France.

 

The Vikings in England

THE British Isles suffered more at the hands of the Vikings than any other region of Europe. It was in Ireland that the Norwegians first established a foothold. In the 850 and 854, Norwegian forces wintered over on the south coast of England, establishing an evil precedent. If they could remain one winter, than why not two, or three? From that time onwards, the Vikings ceased to be merely raiders, but rather emerged as conquerors and colonists as displaced sub-kings from Denmark and Norway sought to carve out realms for themselves and their followers on the green fields of England.

In 865 a great “horde” comprising between 500 and 1,000 men attacked England. Among its leaders were Yngvarr the Boneless and Halfdan, sons of the famous Viking Ragnar Lo_brók. Ragnar had besieged Paris in 845 and received a ransom of 7,000 pounds of silver before attacking Northumberland. There he was defeated and killed, and, according to legend, called upon his sons to avenge his death. His sons did not fail him, and Yngvarr and Halfdan conquered York and defeated the Northumbrians. The tactic employed by Yngvarr and Halfdan was to seize a fortified town and then ravage the surrounding countryside until its inhabitants bought peace. Using both sea power and horses taken in East Anglia, the Viking army had great mobility. After 868, they began to attack Mercia and East Anglia. The East Anglian king St. Edmund was shot to death with arrows, and his kingdom soon joined Northumbria among the kingdoms under Danish rule.

By 870 Wessex was the only kingdom of note not in Danish hands, and soon it too came under their attack. It was fortunate for Wessex that it was ruled by kings of the first rate. In a decisive battle near Reading in 870, King Æthelred I and his brother Alfred defeated the Danish host in a three-day engagement. This temporarily stalled the Danish advance. Shortly thereafter, in 871, Alfred succeeded to the throne of Wessex. His reign saw Wessex locked in a struggle for existence against the Danish foe. The Danes resumed the offensive in 878 when King Guthrum of York staged a surprise raid on Wessex. Alfred was forced to withdraw, but was able to rally his troops at Edington where the Danes were defeated again. Guthrum submitted to Alfred and received Christian baptism. By establishing a series of forts, or burhs, along the border, Alfred contained further Danish aggression, limiting their activities to a region of eastern England later known as the Danelaw. Thereafter, Alfred tried to push the Danes back. He reoccupied London in 886, and by his death in 899 had secured Wessex and laid the stage for the full reconquest of the areas under Danish occupation. It is for this reason, as well as his cultural endeavors, that he has been remembered to posterity as Alfred the Great.

Alfred and his successors were able to overcome the Danes through several means. First of all, Alfred contained further Danish expansion through the construction of fortresses which also provided staging areas for a series of counter-offensives. Perhaps more important, however, was a change in the activities of the Danes. After the initial period of conquest, the Danes settled down and began farming. As the Danish settlers found themselves threatened by attacks by Norwegian Vikings, they began to turn to Wessex for help, and gradually began to accept the authority of the English ruler. Between 902 and 909, King Edward the Elder of Wessex did not stage any attacks on the Danes, but there is some evidence that English nobles began to buy land in the Danelaw. In 909 Edward invaded the Danelaw and with Mercian support seized East Anglia and the Danish Midlands. The reconquest of the Danelaw was completed after a major campaign in 917 and 918.

Edward the Elder died in 924. His son Æthelstan now turned his attention to the conquest of the Danish kingdom of Northumbria. By this point, the political situation in the British Isles had changed markedly. Until the death of Edward, Wessex was still largely on the defensive, fighting against not only the Danes, but Norwegian Vikings from Dublin and the Celtic peoples of Wales, Cornwall, and the Scottish border regions. Now it was Wessex that appeared to be the aggressor, and Æthelstan was faced with a combined threat from the Celts and Vikings. At the famous battle of Brunanburh in 937, Æthelstan defeated the Celtic-Norse allies. He was able to secure his flanks by making alliances with the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair, whose son he fostered. After his death in 939 the Norse king of Dublin, Olaf, attempted to reclaim the Northumbrian kingdom. However, the kings of Wessex had to do little as Olaf was himself opposed by the Norwegian Viking Eirik Bloodaxe. For fifteen years, from 939 to 954, these two Vikings were locked in a death struggle for Northumbria. By 954, both were dead, and Northumbria was in the hands of the kings of Wessex. Thereafter, the kingdom of England was united. This the English owed as much to the Vikings as to any of their own rulers.

The Vikings in France

ALFRED the Great’s victory over the Danes marked the end of active attempts by foreign armies to gain a foothold on English soil for several generations, but not all of Western Europe benefited from these events. Rather, the Danes began to focus their attentions on the continent, and in particular on the West Frankish kingdom. King Charles the Bald was unable to do much against the invaders as his energy was consumed in wars against his brothers for control of the legacy of Charlemagne. Consequently, he either paid off the invaders by offering them tribute or by hiring other Vikings to defend the coastline. In the 850s and 860s Bjorn Ironside, a son of Ragnar Lothbròk, established a base on the Island of Oissel. Charles hired another Viking band to rid him of Bjorn, offering them 3,000 pounds of silver. After Charles’ death in 877, his kingdom was partitioned and only reunited with the accession of Charles the Fat in 884. In the meantime, the defense of the coastline fell increasingly on the shoulders of local counts.

Flanders was a region of intense Viking activity from the time of Godefred onwards. The most serious attacks came between 879 and 881 after Alfred the Great ejected a large Danish force from England. The Danes crossed the channel and raided along the Scheldt estuary, spending the winter of 880-881 in Ghent. The rise of the counts of Flanders was linked to this struggle. The first known count of Flanders, Baldwin I, was from a Frankish comital family. He was perhaps related to the counts of Laon and himself ruled three counties in what is now Belgium. Baldwin’s real rise to power came after his marriage to Judith, the daughter of Charles the Bald and sister-in-law of Alfred the Great. Later Baldwin’s son, Count Baldwin II, married Alfred’s daughter Æthelfryth. This dynastic link between two families opposing the Danes was crucial to the development of Flanders as a powerful principality in northern France.

Another area that was under constant attack was the Loire Valley. The town of Nantes at the mouth of the Loire was occupied at various times by Vikings and Bretons, both enemies of the Franks. In the mid-ninth century, a march was established in Anjou to protect the central Loire region from attack. Robert the Brave, a noble of obscure birth, emerged as Count of Anjou in the latter part of the reign of Charles the Bald. He successfully played the king against his various enemies, both foreign and domestic, until Charles granted him a vast duchy stretching from the mouth of the Loire to the Seine. After his death in 866, Robert’s descendants made Paris their seat, and in 885 Robert’s son Odo was able to defeat a Danish siege of the city. Charles the Fat offered little help, and consequently, the nobles of Neustria deposed him and elected Odo as their king. From 888 until 898, Odo ruled as king of the West Franks, but was unable to secure the throne for his heirs. After his death the kingdom passed back to the Carolingians in the person of Charles the Simple.

One of the last acts of Odo was to entrust the County of Anjou to Fulk the Red, the grandson of a forester from the Breton march. Fulk established a new dynasty in Anjou. In alliance with Odo’s son, Duke Hugh the Great of Paris, Fulk was able to use the Viking threat as well as the weakness of the Carolingian rulers to carve out for himself a powerful state in northern France. At the same time, the Danes once again attacked the northern coast and occupied the mouth of the Seine. According to various sources, these Danes were led by Hrolf the Ganger, known in Frankish chronicles as Rollo. It is uncertain whether Hrolf was himself Norwegian or Danish, but it is clear that his army was predominantly made up of Danes displaced from England by the conquest of the Danelaw. By 911 Hrolf commanded all of the lower Seine. To pacify him, and to gain an ally against both future Viking bands and Hugh the Great, King Charles the Simple agreed to invest Hrolf with the Duchy of Normandy. Hrolf was baptized in 912, and his successors continued to rule Normandy as vassals of the French king. The foundation of the County of Anjou and the Duchy of Normandy, along with the association between the descendants of Robert the Brave and Paris, were to be of great significance for the future history not only of France, but England and the whole of Western Europe.

The Scandinavians in the East

EVEN before the Norsemen began their raids in the west, the Scandinavians had been involved in the Baltic region. The political center of the region was the Swedish kingdom of Uppland, which emerged in the seventh century as the major Scandinavian state in the Baltic. Throughout the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, there is evidence of Swedish commercial and military activity, although the sources are certainly open to question.

One of the first written references to Swedish domination in the Baltic comes from the Ynnglinga Saga of Snorri Sturlusson. Snorri writes of exploits of Ivar Vidfavne — “wide grasper” –describing how he not only “subdued the whole of Sweden,” but “brought in subjection to himself all the Danish dominions, a great deal of Saxland, all the East Country, and a fifth part of England. From his race the kings of Sweden and Denmark who have the supreme authority in those countries, are descended.” Ivar Vidfavne, if he ever existed, must have lived in the last half of the seventh century. Among the regions described, “Saxland” is clearly a reference to the lands of the Saxons in northern Germany, while East Land is generally used in Snorri as a general term for Russia and the eastern Baltic. The reference to England, of course, casts serious doubts on the account, as the Norse first landed there in the late eighth century, and only established a firm foothold in the later ninth century. Nonetheless, there is additional documentary evidence, as well as some archaeological remains, that might establish a continuity of Swedish settlement at sites in modern Latvia from the later seventh century onwards, if not earlier.

Swedes and Danes appear to have been involved in a vigorous Baltic trade in the eighth century, bolstered through contacts with Byzantium and the Arab world. Trade with the Arabs, conducted along the rivers of Russia, was a major source of silver in the Baltic region. Indeed, the disruption of this trade, perhaps brought on by the migrations of various Turkic peoples, such as the Bulgars and Petchnegs in the early ninth century, appears to have been a major contributing factor to the Viking assaults on the West.

This brings us to the thorny question of Sweden’s involvement in Russia. Most histories derive their evidence from a single source, the Russian Primary Chronicle, composed in the eleventh century. The relevant passages are repeated below:

6367 (859). The Varangians from beyond the sea imposed tribute upon the Chuds, the Slavs, the Merians, the Ves, and the Krivichians. But the Khazars imposed it upon the Polyanians, the Severians, and the Varangians, and collected a squirrel-skin and a beaver-skin from each hearth.

6368-6370 (860-862). The tributaries of the Varangians drove them back beyond the sea and, refusing them further tribute, set out to govern themselves. There was no law among them, but tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against another. They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to the law.” They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Russes: these particular Varangians were known as Russes, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans, Angles, and Goths, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, and the Krivichians then said to the people of Rus, “Our whole land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.” They thus selected three brothers, with their kinsfolk, who took with them all the Russes and migrated. The oldest, Rurik, located himself in Novgorod; the second, Sineus, in Byeloozero; and the third , Truvor, in Izborsk. On account of these Varangians, the district of Novgorod are descended from the Varangian race, but aforetime they were Slavs, After two years, Sineus and his brother Truvor died, and Rurik assumed the sole authority.

The outlines of the story seem fairly clear: the Swedes, here called Varangians, had originally demanded tribute from some of the Slavic Tribes, but then were driven out. The date of the expulsion corresponds to attacks by the Byzantines on the Bulgars and the rise of new Slavic polities in Moravia and Serbia. The return of the Varangians under Rurik the Rus provides the starting point for the formation of a Russian state centered around Novgorod. Later, the chronicle tells us how three brothers, not of Rurik’s house, but members of his retinue, seized Kiev and founded a second Russian state. Herein the significance of the chronicle becomes clear. Under the Kievan prince Oleg the Wise (879-912), the two states of Novgorod and Kiev were united, and the remainder of the chronicle recounts the rise of Oleg’s dynasty and its conversion to Christianity in 988. But even if the details are troublesome, the basic theme of Swedish involvement in Russian affairs in the ninth and tenth centuries seems uncontestable, supported as it is by reports in Western, Byzantine, and Arab sources, as well as by archaeological evidence.

A major focus of Varangian activity seems to have been Constantinople, known as Miklagarð in the Norse writings. In 863/66 two Varangian brothers from Kiev, Askold and Dir, attacked Constantinople. Thereafter, the Rus made several unsuccessful attacks on the city. For the most part, however, relations seem to have been peaceful. The description of the conversion of the Rus from the Primary Chronicle indicates that trade relations were of supreme importance. Indeed, immediately following the conversion tale is long section containing what purports to be the text of a trade agreement between the Kievan kingdom and Byzantium. In his tenth century De Administrando Imperii, the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos described in great detail the methods by which the Rus navigated the rivers of Russia on their way from the Baltic to the Black sea. Remnants of boats have been found at important portage sites, and have helped scholars pin-point the location of the trade routes. Through Russia, Byzantine and Arab goods, including hordes of silver coins, began to flood into Scandinavia and the West in the later part of the ninth and tenth centuries.

After 900, the Swedish influence in Russia waned and the Varangians intermarried with Slavs. After Oleg, we begin to see Russian rulers with Slavic names, the first of these being Svjatoslav, who died after attacking Byzantium in 972. Nonetheless, the Varangians continued to play a role in Byzantine politics as members of the imperial guard. The Varangian Guard, established to protect the emperor, was initially made up of Swedish mercenaries, and by the end of the tenth century drew Scandinavian soldiers and princes from as far afield as Iceland. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, and number of Anglo-Saxons made up the guard. As late as 1204, during the siege of Constantinople by Venetian and French troops, the chronicles report that English and Danish mercenaries fought for the Greeks.

The Norse Atlantic Saga

OF all the Scandinavian achievements in the early Middle Ages, the greatest was not a military effort, but long range voyages of discovery and settlement. In the eighth century, Norwegian Vikings discovered the Faeroe Islands in the North Atlantic, founding several settlements. In 860, either a Norwegian named Nabbod or a Swede, Garder Svavarsson, discovered another great island, Iceland. Iceland had already been settled by Irish Anchorite monks in the early ninth century, if not earlier. An Irish chronicle, written around 825 describes Iceland in some detail. As with the monks who followed St. Columbanus to Europe in the sixth century, the Irish were leaving their home country on a personal pilgrimage, to do battle the Devil in the wilderness. The Irish, however, could not long resist the newcomers. After 874, large scale Norwegian settlement began, and by 930, all available land had been settled.

Iceland was a republic with vague allegiance to the Norwegian crown. Its ruling body, the Thing, is the oldest parliamentary body in Europe and has been meeting more or less continually since 930. Around 1000, Iceland committed its law to writing. The Icelandic law codes are notable as the only Germanic codes not written in Latin. Rather, a sizable vernacular literature developed in Iceland, based on the oral tradition of their ancestors. Even today, Icelanders speak a language not very different from that of their tenth century ancestors.

Despite their culture and institutions, however, some of the later settlers imported the violence of the mainland. One of them was Eirik the Red, whose followers wrought devastation on their enemies in bloody feuds. In 982, Eirik was exiled to Greenland, which had been discovered in 930. Eirik established a colony in Greenland which would survive and prosper for four centuries. It is important to note that in the Middle Ages, the climate was warmer than today. No continental glaciers in Europe predate 1200. Whereas Greenland today is almost entirely covered by ice, in Eirik’s day, it was truly green. In time, Greenland had three major settlements and its own Catholic bishop.

In summer 986, an Icelander named Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course on his way to join Eirik’s Greenlandic colony. He sighted a number of lands to the south and west of Greenland, which were described in his personal saga. Helluland was the closest to Iceland, and consisted mostly of rock and ice. Markland was a region of forest, but there was no place to make landfall. Vinland, however, was a lovely land, and became the object of later expeditions. In 1000 Leif Eiriksson (Eirik the Red’s son) led a flotilla to Vinland and established a settlement. For long, the Vinland saga was considered to by a myth, but in the 1960s, the remains of the Viking settlement were excavated on the northern tip of Newfoundland. The sagas of Bjarni and Leif give accurate descriptions of Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador.

The settlements of the Icelanders, Greenlanders and Vinlanders were not isolated colonies. For most of the eleventh and twelfth century they engaged in brisk trade with Europe. Walrus ivory, skins, and peregrin falcons, prized as hunting birds, were imported from Greenland. Iceland early on became a source of high quality wool. Fishing and whaling were the single greatest industry of the islanders. The climate cooled in the thirteenth century, however, and the seas were clogged with ice for weeks on end. This effectively cut off the further regions from contacts with Europe. The Vinland colony was abandoned after a few decades. The Greenland colonists came into conflict with Eskimos migrating south, owing to the contraction of hunting lands. The last reported contact with the Greenlandic colony came in 1410. After that, it is hard to know what happened. An Icelandic fishing expedition found a dead Norseman in Greenland in 1540, and archaeological evidence suggests that the colony may have maintained some contact with Europe into the fifteenth century, based on clothing styles from burials in the frozen earth.

Although the Viking colonies did not survive to modern times, their achievement was still great. In the early Middle Ages, the Vikings established a culture which ranged from India to North America, based on trade and well coordinated military expeditions. No other medieval culture could boast of such accomplishments.

The East Frankish Kingdom in the Ninth Century

AFTER the division of Charlemagne empire, the East Frankish kingdom was ruled by Louis the German (843-876). Unlike the realms of his brothers Charles the Bald and Lothar, Louis’ kingdom was underdeveloped and lacked a strong set of political traditions. Nonetheless, it did not suffer to the same degree from Viking assaults or the division of the kingdom into feudal principalities, as occurred in the West. Moreover, Louis was able to maintain strict control over the church, which became the foundation for the governance of his empire. Bavaria was initially the center of his power, and he set up his court at Regensburg on the model of Aachen. By the end of his reign, the lower Main and Rhine regions, around Frankfurt, became the heartland of Germany, and thereafter, Frankfurt became the site of most assemblies and ecclesiastical synods.

The eastern kingdom was divided into five duchies, often referred to as stem duchies, after the German word for tribe, Stamm. The most powerful of these during Louis’ time were Saxony, ruled by Luidolf, Bavaria under Duke Ernst, and Swabia (the former Alamannic kingdom) ruled by Erchanger. Louis bound these nobles to himself through marriage alliances, marrying his sons to the daughters of the great dukes.

In the early part of his reign, Louis and his brothers agreed on the necessity of maintaining the “middle kingdom” of Lothar as a buffer state between the powerful eastern and western kingdoms. After the death of Lothar I in 855, however, the issue of Lotharingia was complicated by the division of the kingdom. Lothar’s eldest son Louis II (855-875) received Italy and the imperial title, while his younger son Lothar II (855-869) received the northern part of the kingdom, centered on Aachen. When Lothar died without issue, a conflict arose as to the succession. Louis the German clearly hoped to gain control over all of Lotharingia, but was gravely ill when his nephew died. Hence, with the Treaty of Mersen (870), Lotharingia was divided between Charles the Bald and Louis the German. When Louis II died, Louis the German saw an opportunity to gain the imperial crown for his family. He sent his eldest son Carloman to Italy to seize the title, but was too late. Charles the Bald, in collusion with the papacy, was able to arrange his own coronation. In an act of true fraternal devotion, Louis the German undertook to attack his brother’s kingdom in revenge, but died before the campaign began.

When Louis the German died, he divided his kingdom among this three sons: Carloman, Louis III, and Charles III (“the Fat”). In contrast to previous generations, the three brothers cooperated to a certain degree against a common enemy: their West Frankish cousins. Carloman was able to drive Charles the Bald out of Italy and have himself anointed king but died in 880 before being able to make much of his victory. Far better fared Louis III, who defeated Charles the Bald at Andernach in 876 while the latter tried to seize the eastern part of Lotharingia. In the following years, the West Frankish kingdom collapsed into anarchy, owing to the Viking invasions and succession conflicts. Consequently, with the Treaty of Ribemont (880), Louis III was able to secure all of Lotharingia for the eastern kingdom. An independent Burgundian kingdom reemerged from this treaty, and the West Frankish kingdom was greatly reduced in size.

Louis III died in 882, and under Charles the Fat the kingdom was reunited. From 884 to 887, Charles briefly ruled both the eastern and western Frankish kingdoms, and obtained the imperial title as well. He suffered from epilepsy, however, and was deposed in 887. The kingdom was again divided. His nephew Arnulf of Carinthia, a son of Carloman, was elected king of the East Franks by the nobility in a ceremony that severely altered the mode of succession. Thereafter, the eastern kingdom would have an elected king, rather than dynastic succession. Arnulf (887-899) was faced with severe internal problems and when he died left his kingdom to his six-year old son Louis “the Child.” As might be expected, central authority evaporated, and the stem dukes assumed even greater power.

Eastern Europe in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries

JUST as the ninth century saw the creation of the “modern” outlines of western Europe, so too the same period was crucial for the development of the Balkans. During the time of the Isaurian Emperors the Bulgar Empire did not pose much of a threat to Byzantium. Internal conflicts allowed Leo IV to intervene in Bulgarian affairs. When the Bulgar Khan Telerig was driven out of his state in 777, Leo welcomed him. Telerig converted to Christianity and took a Greek bride. And although war broke out in 789, the Empress Irene was willing to buy peace at any price.

The deposition of Irene in 802 led to a reversal of policy. The new emperor, Nikephoros I, was bent on conquering Bulgaria outright. He could not have picked a more inopportune time. Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Avars in 791 and 795 had destroyed Bulgaria’s only other enemy in the Balkans, allowing them to concentrate all of their efforts on Byzantium. Moreover, the new Khan, Krum, was not a man to be trifled with. When Nikephoros invaded Bulgaria in 811, he walked straight into a trap. He and his army were slaughtered in their camp as they slept. Krum had the Emperor’s skull lined with silver and used it as a drinking cup. Krum laid siege to the imperial city, but with no greater success than his predecessors. Still, he did not relent. In 814 he proclaimed himself emperor and arranged his coronation outside the walls of Constantinople. After the ceremony, as he was walking with his retinue, he suddenly stopped and began to shake. Blood issued from his nostrils, and he fell to the ground dead. The people of Constantinople took this as a sign of divine intervention.

Krum’s successor, Omortag, made a thirty year truce with Byzantium. He used that time to extend Bulgarian influence into the western Balkans. He first attacked the Slavs of Timok, a region just south of Belgrade, in 818. They turned to Louis the Pious for aid, but he took his time, ensuring their defeat. In 827, the Bulgars attacked Croatia. The only serious resistance to their efforts was the Serbian Prince Vlastimir. Vlastimir organized the tribe along the Danube and built the first Serbian state. Omortag’s successor, Malamir, invaded Serbia in 839 to suppress Vlastimir’s “revolt,” but was soundly defeated. The Serbs took to the hills and carried out a successful guerilla campaign, forcing the Bulgars to completely withdraw in 842. The Bulgars made yet another attempt to subdue the Serbs in 852, when Khan Boris sent an army led by his son Vladimir. This offensive went no better than the previous ones. Vladimir, along with twelve boyars, was captured by the Serbs.

Among the more important developments during the ninth century was the rise of a new state in East Central Europe. Most historians tend to ignore the east in the early Middle Ages, seeing it as a region inhabited by Slavic “tribes” with no political institutions worth noting. The sources present a different view. In the areas of Bohemia and Moravia, several states emerged in the early Middle Ages. The first was the kingdom of Samo, centered in western Bohemia in the early seventh century. It was overcome by the Avars, however, who established suzerainty over the western Slavs in the late seventh century. The Bohemians continued to look to the west for support, and in the time of Charlemagne, the dukes of the Bohemians sent a yearly tribute to the Franks. Bohemian nobles appear at the Imperial Diets of Paderborn (815), Frankfurt (822), and Diederhofen (831). In 845, fourteen Bohemian dukes appeared at the court in Regensburg and were baptized, accepting as well Frankish suzerainty.

Charlemagne’s own campaigns, however, did not bode well for a continuation of this relationship. After the destruction of the Avar kingdom, a new Slavic state emerged in its wake. Under Moimir I (c. 830-846) a powerful kingdom arose in Slovakia and Moravia. Perceiving a threat, Louis the German intervened in Moravian affairs after Moimir’s death, supporting the candidature of the latter’s nephew, Rastislav, as ruler. Rastislav (846-870) was not prepared, however, to merely be Louis’ lackey, and used a revolt by the Bohemians in 849 to extend the extent of his lordship. Rastislav made alliances with the Bulgar Empire and Slavs to the north. Louis made a series of unsuccessful campaigns against the Moravians but was hindered by both the strength of his foes and a revolt staged by his own son.

In 863, Louis tried a new tactic, and forged an alliance with the Bulgars who attacked Moravia from the east. In response, Rastislav decided to turn east and formerly requested an alliance with the Byzantine Emperor, indicating his willingness to convert to Christianity. This was a decisive move and a political masterstroke. Byzantium at this point was in a difficult situation. Photius, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, had been engaged in a serious quarrel with Pope Nicholas I since 858. While the pope was intent on establishing the supremacy of Rome over the eastern church, Photius was just as bent on maintaining his autonomy. Nicholas claimed the right to appoint bishops in the southern Italian region of Calabria and in Illyria, areas under the jurisdiction of Constantinople since at least the early eighth century. After a series of miscues and misunderstanding, Nicholas excommunicated Photius. Photius followed with the superb retort of excommunicating the Pope. The so-called Photian schism differed from earlier ruptures within the church in that it concerned purely political matters: namely, the power of the papacy. Rastislav’s mission coincided exactly with the outbreak of the schism and offered Photius with a golden opportunity to extend the power of his church.

Rastislav and Photius had common enemies and common goals. Both feared the Bulgars, both were anxious about the threat from the Western rulers and the Western church. Although records from a synod held at Mainz in 853 suggest that Bohemia was already a Christian land, Rastislav was hesitant to allow the church in his kingdom come under the leadership of German bishops. Constantinople was further away. Moreover, Photius offered him an autochthonous church. Finally, an alliance with Byzantium would give Rastislav a powerful ally against the Bulgars.

The mission to Moravia was organized by two brothers, Methodius and Constantine, later called Cyril. Both were skilled diplomats as well as theologians. Moreover, they knew the Slavic language. In 862, as part of a planned mission to the Bulgars, several theologians were commissioned to create a Slavic alphabet. Cyril developed an alphabet based on Greek for the Slavic language and translated the Bible, the liturgy and some theological works into a Macedonian dialect known as Old Church Slavonic. He and his brother arrived in Moravia in 863 to begin their mission, but soon ran into conflicts with Frankish clerics already there. Louis the German saw Cyril and Methodius as trespassers and sent an army into Moravia the following year, forcing Rastislav to submit to his authority. Still, this did not prevent Rastislav from pursuing his own course. In alliance with the Byzantine emperor, he attacked and annexed large parts of the Bulgar Empire, extending his power into modern day Hungary. The Bulgars now played the same card that Rastislav had: they turned to the papacy and Louis the German, requesting missionaries to teach them about the Christian faith.

Bulgaria was ruled by Khan Bogoris (Boris), a crafty and skilled politician. He correctly recognized the threat to his state posed by a Byzantine satellite to the northwest. He also realized how alarmed Constantinople would be by a Carolingian presence in Bulgaria. The Eastern Emperor, Michael III, immediately offered to treat with Boris, offering him a truce and upper Macedonia if he would abandon the alliance with the West. Boris agreed and accepted baptism into the Greek church with Michael as his godfather. Boris ordered all his boyars to accept baptism, and those who refused were deposed. This allowed him to drive out many of the old nobility, in most cases replacing them with Slavs, rather than Bulgar nobles. One indication of this is the Turkic title of Khan was replace by a Slavic word, Knyaz. Nonetheless, Boris soon recognized that the Greek missionaries were not what he had hoped for, and after several popular revolts against their teachings turned again to Rome.

What followed was a bidding war between Rome and Constantinople. The Pope sent Boris a bishop, named Formosus, and Latin priests, but this was not sufficient. He now demanded that Formosus be named archbishop. Pope Nicholas had no desire to create an autochthonous Bulgarian church, and replaced Formosus with another bishop. Byzantium could offer no aid. Michael III had been murdered by a stable boy and replaced by Basil I. Photius was dismissed, and the whole diplomatic web he had woven collapsed. At this point (867) Pope Nicholas died. His replacement, Hadrian II, bitterly opposed granting the Bulgarian church autonomy. Boris finally gave up on Rome, and in 870, the Bulgarian church was received into the patriarchate of Constantinople. An archbishop of Boris’ own choosing was consecrated as head of the Bulgarian National Church. Boris abdicated in 889 and entered a monastery. For his part in bringing the Bulgars into the cultural orbit of Byzantium, Emperor Basil I has been ranked with Constantine, Justinian I and Heraclius for his skill in foreign relations.

Pope Hadrian was not about to admit defeat and now sought to use Cyril and Methodius to recoup his losses in the East. He received Cyril and Methodius in Rome during the winter of 867-68 and gave his full support to the use of the Slavonic liturgy. He still saw the combination of their mission to the Moravians and the current work in Bulgaria as offering the possibility of bringing all the Slavic peoples of Central Europe and the Balkans under the sway of the Roman church. Since Photius was out of the way, this seemed like a distinct possibility. Hadrian chastised Louis the German for his treatment of the missionaries and sent them back to Moravia under his protection. Cyril died in Rome before being able to leave, but his brother Methodius continued to organize a Moravian church as bishop.

Hadrian’s protection was worth little. In 870 Rastislav was deposed by his nephew Svatopluk (871-894) with East Frankish support. Methodius was imprisoned and sent off to Regensburg and condemned by a synod of Frankish bishops for “usurping” their rights over the Slavic churches. Only three years later did news reach Rome about Methodius’ fate. Although Pope John VIII forced the Franks to release him, Methodius’ work in Moravia was wrought with difficulties He did not enjoy the same sort of good relations with the current Moravian ruler that he had had with his predecessor. When Methodius died in 885, his supporters were sent into exile, the Slavonic liturgy was suppressed, and the Moravian church once again was placed under Frankish control.

In the last years of Svatopluk’s reign, the East Frankish king Arnulf made a punitive raid into Moravia in league with the Bulgars and a hitherto unknown people, the Magyars or Hungarians. Their emergence marked the beginning of a serious disruption in the east. Initially they were settled north of the Danube, but rulers such as Arnulf and the Byzantine Emperor Leo IV were more than willing to use them against their opponents. Just as Arnulf employed them against the Moravians, Leo conspired with them against the Bulgars. Boris’ son Symeon had protested against what he felt were unfair tariffs and trade practices prejudicial to the sale of Bulgarian goods in Greek markets. When Leo refused to do anything about it, Symeon invaded Thrace. Rather than expel Symeon himself, Leo ferried a group of Magyars across the Danube to attack Symeon’s rear. The tactic worked; Symeon sued for peace.

Once he had secured peace with Byzantium, Symeon turned his attention to the Magyars. He drove them back across the Danube, and then made an alliance with another Turkic people of the Pontic Steppes, the Petchnegs. The Petchnegs occupied the Magyars’ old home. Finding themselves unable to move south or return east, the Magyars moved west. After 896, they settled down on the Pannonian plain and began to form what would later become the Kingdom of Hungary. From there they began to make raids into the Moravian Empire and Germany. After the death of Moimir II in 902, no Moravian leader could resist their assaults. In 906 a combined Bavarian and Moravian army was annihilated by the Magyars, who seized most of the old Moravian Empire. For the next half century, the Magyars would be the scourge of Europe.

The collapse of the Moravian Empire drove the Bohemians into closer association with Germany. From the early ninth century onwards, the Czech nobles of Bohemia had sought imperial protection and support in their efforts to obtain autonomy first from the Avars and then from the Moravian rulers. In 872, six Czech princes, including Borivoi, Duke of Prague from around 850 to 895, came to do homage to the East Frankish king at the Diet of Regensburg. Borivoi’s son Spitihnev (895-905/15) renewed this alliance upon his succession. During the reign of Louis “the Child,” while the East Frankish kingdom was in disarray, Spitihnev and his brother Vratislav I (905/15-921) consolidated their hold over Bohemia, The other dukes were forced to submit to the rulers in Prague, which became the political center of the region. The dynasty soon emerged as the focus of national loyalty in the face of the Magyar threat. When Vratislav died his son Vaclav (Wenceslas) was elected as his successor by the assembled nobles, even though he was not yet of age. St. Wenceslas (921-935) continued the work of building the Czech state, and with the construction of St. Veit’s church made Prague the spiritual center of Bohemia. Still, the new Czech state was closely tied to Germany and would effectively remain under German suzerainty until the twentieth century.

In Bulgaria, Symeon was hoping to avoid the fate of the Moravians. He had been able to arrange a seven-year truce with Leo IV in 896, but this did not prevent him from seeking to conquer Constantinople outright. Leo IV died in 912, and his successor, the drunkard Alexander, lived only long enough to give Symeon more than cause to go to war with Byzantium. At this crucial juncture, the crown fell into the hands of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos (913-959), a sickly boy of seven and the product of Leo’s thoroughly unorthodox marriage to his mistress, the Empress Zoe. For all but the last fifteen years of his forty-seven year reign, Constantine VII had to share power first with regents, later with usurpers, while he devoted most of his time to writing important works on politics and the administration of the Byzantine state. For the moment, real power lay in the hands of a council of regency, headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas Mysticus (901-907, 912-925). Nicholas was not a popular man in some circles. He had opposed Leo VI’s fourth marriage — that which produced the reigning Emperor — and had even gone so far as to slam the church door in Leo’s face on Christmas Day 906. He had then been deposed, but returned to his office when Leo VI died. On his shoulders now fell the terrible responsibility of negotiating with the Bulgars.

Nicholas tried a number of devices to try and prevent Symeon from ravaging the Empire. He appealed to his piety, but to no avail. He then offered a different solution. In 913 Nicholas crowned Symeon “Emperor of Bulgaria”. By granting Symeon the title of Basileus, Nicholas hoped that he could limit the Bulgar’s ambitions to obtain the title of Roman Emperor. Since Constantinople had already agreed to recognize Charlemagne as Basileus, the significance of the title was somewhat diminished. Nonetheless, it gave Symeon official recognition of his stature within Europe. To cement the deal, Nicholas agreed to arrange a marriage between Constantine VII and one of Symeon’s daughters.

The agreement between Symeon and Nicholas was short lived. Empress Zoe, confined to a convent when Nicholas assumed power as regent, escaped and led a revolt against the Patriarch in 914. She quickly repudiated all of Nicholas’ terms. In particular she bristled at the thought of her son marrying a Bulgarian barbarian. In response, Symeon invaded the Empire, ravaging Thrace. To combat this threat, Zoe sent an imperial fleet to ferry Petchnegs across the Danube. An imperial army led by Leo Phocas marched into Thrace, while Prince Peter of the Serbians, an old enemy of the Bulgars, agreed to attack Symeon in concert with Phocas. In the end, the invasion failed. For some reason, the Petchnegs were afraid to cross the river and Symeon’s agents in Serbia inspired a revolt against Peter by another Serbian noble. Zoe was also a poor judge of soldiers, and Leo Phocas led his army into a carefully prepared trap. With the defeat of his army the road to Constantinople seemed open, but Zoe had one more trick up her sleeve. On the eve of her fall from power in 918, she was able to ensure that Symeon became entangled in Serbian affairs. Although Byzantium’s ally in Serbia, Prince Peter, was defeated and dragged off to a Bulgarian prison, this gave Byzantium time to shore up the defenses of their capital. Although Symeon could march right up to the walls of the city, he could not breach them.

In May 919, the admiral of the Byzantine Fleet, Romanus Lecapenus, seized power. He married his daughter to Constantine VII, now a mature thirteen years of age, and had himself crowned co-emperor. Symeon demanded that he ought to be crowned Emperor, but to no avail. Romanus I (919-944) skillfully used the Serbs to tie up Bulgarian armies. When Symeon finally crushed the Serbs in 925, Romanus found an ally in the Croatians. Symeon tried to do to the Croatians what he had done to the Serbs, but his plans failed. King Tomislav of Croatia demolished a Bulgarian army in 926. The news of the defeat threw Symeon into a state of shock from which he never recovered. Less than a year later he was dead of a heart attack.

Romanus I agreed to a peace treaty with Bulgaria. He married his granddaughter to Symeon’s son Peter and acknowledged him as “Tsar” (Caesar) of the Bulgarians. For most of his reign, Tsar Peter (927-969) was faced with crises at home, largely because of the spread of heretical teachings in his newly Christianized realm. At the end of his reign, he contemplated once again making war on Byzantium. This time, the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phocas (963-969) was able to find a more powerful ally than the Serbs. He convinced the Russian ruler, Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev, to attack Bulgaria. The attack was a great success — too great perhaps. Nikephoros quickly made peace with the Bulgarians when it appeared as if Svyatoslav might overrun all of the Balkans. His successor, John II Tzimisces (969-976) rescued the Bulgarian capital from a Russian siege. Russian foot soldiers were scattered and slaughtered by Byzantine heavy cavalry. Shortly thereafter, in 972, Svyatoslav was ambushed and killed by Petchnegs on the way back to Kiev.

Throughout this period, the Bulgars could do little but watch as the Byzantines and Russians slugged it out over their kingdom. Tsar Samuel (976-1014) tried to recreate the great empires of Krum, Boris and Symeon, but with limited success. The Emperor Basil II (976-1025) proved a difficult enemy. After defeating an Arab threat in the east and reorganizing the administration of his kingdom, Basil led a series of campaigns in Bulgaria after 1000. In 1014, Basil surprised the rear of the Bulgar army and defeated it in a brutal, if one-sided, battle. Although Samuel was able to flee, most of his army was not. Some fourteen thousand captives were taken, who were then subjected to a most cruel torture. All were blinded, save one for every hundred who was to lead his fellows back home. It is said that Samuel collapsed and died upon seeing this gruesome procession. The Bulgarian state was once again incorporated into the Empire and Basil II immortalized in legend   “Bulgar-slayer.” Subsequently, Basil was able to extend his power in Anatolia and restore the imperial administration of southern Italy. At home, he defeated the great magnates. Taxes were imposed on the magnates, and through a series of laws, reforms, and even more stringent measures. He invited the greatest landholder in the Empire, Bardas Phocas, to Constantinople where he was imprisoned and his lands confiscated. When Basil II died in 1025, he had conquered the Bulgars, subdued the Serbs, and ruled an empire that stretched from Armenia to Italy and extended as far north of the Danube. His reign marked the apogee of the Byzantine Empire. As George Ostrogorsky observed:

As late as the thirteenth century, a writer [Michael Choniates] could still name Heraclius and Basil II as the greatest Emperors of Byzantium. These names, which are indeed the greatest in all the history of Byzantium, which had its beginning with the one and its conclusion with the other.

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