The Medieval Review 12.11.12

Koziol, Geoffrey. The Politics of Memory and Identity in Carlingian Royal Diplomas: The West Frankish Kingdom (840-987). Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 19. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. Pp. xix, 661. 100.00 EUR. ISBN: 978-2-503-53595-1. . .

Reviewed by:

Warren Brown
California Institute of Technology

In this book, Koziol explores the period from the death of Louis the Pious to the accession of Hugh Capet through royal diplomas. He uses them both as bearers of texts and as physical objects, to tell new stories or overturn old ones, about a period traditionally seen as one of failure and decline. Surprisingly, he also uses them to get at the thoughts and feelings of individuals. Along the way, he draws some general conclusions about the role played by writing in the exercise of power in the late Carolingian world, conclusions that challenge a growing body of scholarship arguing for writing as an important and pervasive tool of Carolingian government.

Koziol presents diplomas to us as performative, that is, not just as records of gifts, confirmations, grants of rights or privileges, and so forth, but rather performances of key moments in the exercise of power and in political competition. Writing, issuing, and witnessing diplomas performed such things as recognizing or rejecting a claim to rule, proclaiming political victories, forging alliances, and advancing (or asserting) a particular historical narrative. Diplomas were "utterances whose meaning is contained not in what they state but what they do" (40).

In the early stages of the book, Koziol very thickly describes the context of particular diplomas or runs of diplomas: the people involved, their interests, etc. He starts with the reign of Charles the Bald, working through Charles' diplomas to see whether they reveal a more routinized and widespread use of diplomas than existed under his successors. He argues that they do not; Charles and the favored members of his court used diplomas primarily as instruments of power and memorials of victories. By means of diplomas the king not only rewarded those who joined him but staked his claim to the kingship by acting like a king. Ceremonies in which diplomas were issued served not so much to consolidate a ruling faction within the aristocracy as to publicize the fact that a ruling faction had been consolidated.

Later on, when Charles the Simple began to issue diplomas for Richard of Burgundy, "the diplomas do not incidentally testify to Richard's dominance: the acts' purpose was to attest to his dominance and rub disfavor into the faces of his enemies" (240). Diplomas issued by Lothar in 979 enacted recognition of Louis V as Lothar's inevitable heir by Hugh Capet and his faction (553). In one of the most touching episodes in the book, Koziol highlights the importance of looking at diplomas as physical objects. In a surviving diploma enacted by Lothar and Louis together, Louis's monogram is unpracticed and smudged. This gives us an image of a boy not only associated in the kingship but also learning how to be king (553-5).

The book is long, primarily because Koziol takes the opportunity in the latter half of the book to shed light on some big questions, and to rewrite some important narratives. One such has to do with the monastic reform movement of the tenth century in Lotharingia. He argues that the reform movement was deliberately promoted, especially by Charles the Simple, to create a network of spiritual alliances which would further the reconstruction of the west Frankish kingdom. Koziol also tackles the meaning of forgery in the period, and by extension, the contemporary understanding of truth. After examining traditional explanations for forgeries (e.g., truth as subjective, forgeries as designed to lay claim to what the writer understood to be true), he argues that truth had more to do with loyalty, i.e., loyalty to the side perpetrating the forgery. Many forgeries were blatantly obvious and would have been perfectly well recognized as forgeries by contemporaries. Koziol's explanation is that forged diplomas performed victory in power struggles; forging a diploma and having it accepted demonstrated one side's ability to impose its "truth" and have it recognized. A purported diploma of King Boso of 879, written on a small, ugly scrap of parchment, was a forgery deliberately crafted to be laughable. It was made to look like a private charter to cast Boso as lacking the legitimacy to issue anything. The forgery allowed its fabricator and purported recipient, the abbot of Saint-Philibert of Tournus Geilo, to recognize the Carolingians Louis III and Carloman by having them then confirm it and thus overwrite Boso with a real royal diploma (387-91).

At the end, Koziol carries out perhaps his boldest stroke: to use diplomas to get at the hearts and minds of his characters. Read intertextually, contextually, performatively--he argues--diplomas allow us to infer an individual's social formation and his response to it. "We can learn what those we study thought was important. It is not so much what the diplomas say as the minds they reveal...though we cannot hear the stories people told, we can see the effects of their telling (412). This was no accident; one of the primary reasons diplomas were made and kept was to tell these stories. Koziol finds that late Carolingian politics was not just driven by self-serving ambition but also by principles. Kings and great magnates could be motivated by conviction, by loyalty, by grievance. Arching over all are two very different understandings of kingship advanced against each other by the Robertines and Carolingians respectively. The one argued that meeting the needs of the realm (particularly given rampant attacks by Northmen) and receiving the divine favor signaled by military success gave kings legitimacy. The other stressed dynastic inheritance. Koziol argues that both reflected the conviction of individual claimants to the kingship. Charles the Simple failed because he created for himself a vision of Carolingian kings as exercising power above the rest of the aristocracy--a vision that had never existed in reality, even under Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. From the carefully constructed diplomas that project this vision, produced by a variety of different drafters, Koziol concludes that Charles was directly involved and that we can see him: "no matter who drafted them or when, Charles' diplomas are unusually well thought out. They show an extremely strong sense of history and a very sophisticated appreciation of political symbolism. The traits are simply too consistent, and point to too consistent a way of thinking about history, not to be the product of a single mind" (484). Similarly Robert of Neustria. Robert's sole surviving diploma, issued in 923 for the all-important monastery of Saint-Denis, reveals in large measure the mind of Robert himself, anticipating a military showdown with Charles and justifying his assumption of the kingship (447-58).

Koziol's use of his sources is brilliant; he is entirely convincing when he argues for diplomas' value as sources and for their performative nature. His thick description and close reading of his diplomas are virtuoso, and he displays a remarkable ability to think across historiographical genres and questions. The book is for the most part easy to read; its length is deceptive. Nevertheless, it is a book for professionals and graduate students. It is often difficult to keep track of all of the names; it is easier to follow Koziol's arguments if one already has a basic grasp of the narrative history of the period, the protagonists, and the historiographical issues.

I find problematic, however, Koziol's arguments about writing and documentary culture in general. He argues that because his diplomas were as much or more political performances than records brought out at key moments and preserved by institutions with a stake in such moments, they did not survive by chance. They are not the tip of an iceberg of diplomas produced for more routine grants and lost by accident; diplomas were not issued regularly by kings to meet the needs of a variety of supplicants. "They [diplomas] are not evidence of a normal recourse to diplomas by churches throughout the kingdom. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that the normal use of diplomas was to regulate, solemnise, and ceremonialise relations among the super-elite" (182). What it took to get diplomas was power, standing, and friends at court. For that very reason, they were not common. "[Diplomas] were as rare as the men and women around whom politics and patronage gravitated in the palace and who shaped the high aristocratic clienteles that framed Carolingian politics" (211). By extension, writing itself was not as common as recent scholarship would have it--a point he makes rather acerbically when he notes that Lupus of Ferrières had to write to the abbot of Prüm to have him write to the abbot of Fulda in order to get a copy of Suetonius to send to Charles the Bald: "...such was the difficulty one of the kingdom's premier literati had in getting hold of one of the most famous classical histories in an age when writing was allegedly widespread" (155).

In my opinion, Koziol has constrained his project too sharply in time, space, and source genre to justify such statements. He focuses strictly on the period from the middle of the ninth century to the late tenth, strictly on west Francia, and strictly on the surviving diplomas. But by limiting his project in this fashion he has cut himself off from evidence that makes his arguments about writing and the survival patterns of documents problematic. His diplomas were produced, and were preserved, in the context of a widespread use of writing to do a variety of things over a much longer span of time extending both backwards and forwards. Kings participated in placita that produced written judgments. Charters and cartularies attest to the important role played by documents in validating and defending property rights among the laity as well as the clergy. Members of the elites wrote letters; people of lower status knew where to go to have letters written on their behalf. Formula collections from the period preserve a variety of kinds of documents of potential use to a variety of kinds of people. They also include forms for diplomas, including forms drawn from actual diplomas that have not survived elsewhere. I do not wish to insult Koziol's intelligence or erudition to suggest that he is not aware of this world, but in this book he rarely acknowledges it (but see for example his comments on private charters in Burgundy, 307).

Such evidence suggests that a significant number of diplomas from this time and region may have been lost, that diplomas may have fulfilled a variety of purposes, and that there was a broader level of writing beyond that which has survived. Koziol does admit the possibility of loss. Nevertheless, he argues that even these losses were driven by politics, and are not evidence for more routine use of diplomas. For example, he discusses three diplomas issued for different Burgundian houses, the only ones issued for the first six months of the reign of Louis IV, which served to show him acting as king in territory formerly belonging to his enemies, to present Hugh the Great as the most powerful magnate in the kingdom, and both as victors. He goes on to say that "surely other diplomas were issued at this time for additional Burgundian recipients that no longer survive." But "these three diplomas survive and only these three because the only diplomas Louis issued in the first six months of his reign were issued as the props of the victory and submission ceremonies at Auxerre" (90). Preservation as well as issuing becomes performative. Yet when he states, "even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that we have lost 100 or 200 diplomas from [the eight years when Charles the Bald was at the height of his power], we must still assume that the missing acts would conform to the uses of those diplomas we actually do have, which means that they would have been produced--as the diplomas actually extant were produced--by kings and palatines for their own political agendas" (210), one is provoked to ask the question, "why must we"?

In general, when Koziol talks about the possibility of loss, it is to minimize the possibility of accidental loss, a pattern of loss that would presuppose a broader resort to writing than the survival pattern on the surface would suggest. Recent scholarship on the subject-- ranging from Patrick Geary's Phantoms of Remembrance (1994) to Brown, Costambeys, Innes, and Kosto, eds., Documentary Culture and the Laity (2013)--agrees with him that document losses, and therefore the pattern of document survivals, were primarily the product not of accident but of active choice. But these choices were not just made at the level of the political elites and not just for political reasons. Documents could be thrown out (or recycled, say, in later book bindings) for example when cartularies were compiled that may or may not have included them, or simply when they were no longer useful. Moreover, these choices could be made over a much greater span of time than Koziol covers; decisions made centuries down the line, in circumstances entirely different from those of the ninth and tenth centuries, could affect the existing survival patterns. Some of this loss could as well have been accidental; one is reminded of St. Gall charters being thrown into the street in the course of the plundering of the abbey in the sixteenth century. In other words, survival patterns were very much tied to the developing needs and long-term histories of ecclesiastical and monastic archives as well as to immediate political circumstances.

In my opinion, Koziol's arguments about writing are unnecessary and distract from the real value of his book; the book would stand perfectly well without them. He has shown quite convincingly that diplomas can be used as sources for doing history in a way that goes beyond their role simply as carriers of information. He has made it very clear how important it is to ground diplomas thoroughly in their thick context; doing so has provided him with a rich payoff. This book will profoundly affect the way that we understand the history of the west Frankish kingdom, and certainly the way that the scholarship understands diplomas. It is a brilliant and extremely important piece of work that will change our picture of an important transitional period.