Thomas F.X. Noble

title.none: Boshof, Ludwig der Fromme (Noble)

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.002 99.02.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Thomas F.X. Noble, University of Virginia,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Boshof, Egon. Ludwig der Fromme. Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 1996. Pp. ix, 308. DM 88. ISBN: 3-89678-020-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.02

Boshof, Egon. Ludwig der Fromme. Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 1996. Pp. ix, 308. DM 88. ISBN: 3-89678-020-4.

Reviewed by:

Thomas F.X. Noble
University of Virginia

In 1874 and 1876 Bernhard von Simson published the two volumes of his Jahrbucher des frankischen Reiches unter Ludwig dem Frommen. Since then Louis has not attracted an historian tempted to devote a thorough study to his life and reign . In 1990 Peter Godman and Roger Collins published a collection of thirty-one papers ( Charlemagne's Heir: New Perspectives on the Reign of Louis the Pious), most of which were delivered at a conference in Oxford in 1986, that treats many aspects of Louis' reign but that does not, and indeed was not intended to, treat the man himself in a comprehensive way. The appearance of Boshof's book is most welcome. He will be known to many as the author of a fine study of Agobard of Lyon (1969), a major figure in Louis' reign, and of several articles dealing with important aspects of ninth-century Carolingian history, including a contribution to the Godman and Collins volume.

Why has Louis, Charlemagne's son and successor, emperor for twenty-six years, been so neglected? The title of Boshof's last chapter "Des grossen Kaisers kleiner Sohn," which Nicholas Staubach also used in his valuable historiographical essay in the Godman and Collins book, and which both borrowed from Karl Hauck's at once magisterial and judgmental Kirchengeschichte Deutschalnds (vol. 2, p. 180), points the way. Louis was the unworthy heir of an unquestionably great father. Already in 1832 Friedrich Funck's forgettable Ludwig der Fromme: Geschichte der Auflosung des frankischen Reiches summed up the way historians, at least German ones, had described Louis since the sixteenth century and pointed the way to most modern views. In 1965 a massive exhibition celebrating Charlemagne--and not so subtly putting forward a certain view of modern Europe in the guise of a recollection of the "First Europe"--was capped by the publication of four stout volumes of scholarship on almost every imaginable aspect of Charlemagne's reign. To volume one was assigned the basic political and institutional history and its chapter summing up everything that happened after Charlemagne, written by Walter Schlesinger, was entitled simply "Die Auflosung des Karlsreiches." Here was Funck again! Seemingly Louis' peaceable character, his good will, his alleged studiousness, and above all his piety made him unfit to rule. Thus his reign was almost inevitably marked by political and military catastrophes, and there was no need to study Louis himself.

In 1957 Theodor Schieffer and Francois-Louis Ganshof published articles on Louis that marked the beginning of a slow shift in scholarly interpretation. Working independently of each other they proceeded along somewhat different paths. Still, one can sum up their work by saying that it opened three possibilities for new understandings. First, they saw that Charlemagne had left much undone and that Louis inherited a very difficult situation. Second, Louis' reign saw at least two and maybe three or four major periods, with the first of these, running well into the 820s, a time of remarkable achievement; indeed, Schieffer called the reforms of 817 the absolute highpoint of Carolingian history. Third, the problems Louis faced in the late 820s and throughout the 830s were rooted in structural conditions in the Frankish world more than in real or imagined personal failings on the part of the ruler. Over the next generation, historians, obedient to the rulers of the kingdom of Annales who told them that they could not study individuals but only deep structures over long durations, lost their taste for biographical studies (and while they were at it, lost their readership and royalties, but that is another story). In Louis' case, the loss was fortuitous. The second half of the twentieth century has seen an explosion in Carolingian studies that cleared away much of what was once thought about the period and made possible a comprehensive reassessment. By the time Boshof set out to write his book, the Annalistes in the meantime having told us that we have their permission to write biographical studies once again as long as we conceive of them as a species of microhistory, our understanding of the Carolingian period, of the framework for Louis' life and work, had changed dramatically.

Boshof's book is roughly divided into quarters. The first treats the long period (781-814) when Louis was king of Aquitaine. The second (814-825) examines the opening years of Louis' emperorship, the time of "elan," "energy," and massive achievement. The third period encompasses the years of acute and continuing crisis (825 to 834). The fourth period is formed by the last six or so years of the reign (834-840). This division seems about right to me as a way to think about, to come to terms with, the reign as a whole. But, as I shall detail below, this periodic approach masks some long-term problems and issues that Boshof does not adequately acknowledge. Moreover, Boshof's organizational scheme is a bit peculiar in that it is relentlessly episodic. Thus there are many "chapters" that run only three or four pages and occasionally these chapterettes lump together some odd things just because they happened at the same time: for instance the ones combining efforts to find a compromise with Lothar and death of Wala (227-230), or the apostasy of Bodo-Eleazar and the theological troubles of Amalar (237-239).

The section treating Louis as sub-king of Aquitaine is particularly good, in my view, and superior to anything else currently available on the subject. Boshof begins with the interesting observation that the Roncesvalles campaign may have suggested to Charlemagne that a subkingdom in the south was necessary. Boshof then goes on to detail the personnel around Louis, the slow build-up of a set of governing institutions (court, chancery, etc.), the problems involved in permitting Louis some autonomy while also maintaining control from Aachen, and the perennial and only partially successful struggle to balance the conflicting interests of Basques, Muslims, Goths, Aquitainian elites, and Frankish nobles from the north. One thing that does emerge clearly from Boshof's discussion is that Louis ascended the throne of the whole Frankish empire in 814 as one of the most experienced rulers in the Middle Ages.

The period of impressive achievement began in earnest in 816 and ran down to the Admonitio ad omnes regni ordines of 825. Boshof builds up several valuable perspectives on this period. He sensitively shows how Louis' work extended that of his father. He tells how Louis built up one set of trusted associates in the years from 814 to the death of his first wife in 818, and then another set in the early 820s after the death of Benedict of Aniane who had been a key member of the inner circle since the Aquitaine years. Boshof teases out effectively and persuasively the ways in which the monastic and ecclesiastical legislation of the period, the papal settlements, the great capitularies, and the succession plan of 817 (the Ordinatio Imperii) breathed the same spirit and proceeded from the same ideological assumptions. Louis' vision was fundamentally unitary in all respects: one God, one emperor, one empire, one faith, one church, one right way of doing things. Louis' office was a munus divinum, a ministerium, and he extended it explicitly to all "orders" of his realm so that all would be adiutores to all. There is not much that is new in Boshof's assessment of these years, but his account is clear, readable, and effective.

Boshof's account of the crisis years focuses on the military reverses of 827 and 828, the "loyal palace rebellion" of 830, and the civil insurrection of 833-834 that witnessed Louis' formal deposition and subsequent restoration. Boshof sees several dynamics operating simultaneously in this complicated period. First, the unitary ideal was dearer to some members of the clergy than to others and to the clergy generally much more than to the lay nobility. For instance, Adalhard, the abbot of Corbie, did not share Benedict of Aniane's unitary vision for monasticism but did share the ideals of those who had promoted the unique succession plan embodied in the Ordinatio Imperii: The empire would be treated as a unitary whole and assigned to Lothar while permanently subordinate subkingdoms would be assigned to Lothar's younger brothers Pippin and Louis. Likewise, one of the key issues for many bishops was the longstanding Carolingian use--read abuse--of church property to reward lay followers. Louis tried in vain to find a compromise that would satisfy the ecclesiastical purists like Wala and Agobard while not angering the land-hungry nobles whose support Louis rightly considered indispensable. "Imperial" aristocrats, those families with lands and offices all over the empire, had a vested interest in continuing imperial unity that the vast majority of nobles, whose interests tended to be local, did not have. The clergy were willing to be Louis' adiutores but they did not wish to be thoroughly subordinate to him or to find their own legitimate roles subsumed into his imperial ministry. Finally, and most acutely, there was the problem of finding some land for Charles, the son born to Louis and his second wife Judith in 823.

The last years of Louis' reign, in Boshof's telling, were devoted to two objectives. The first was to return to the path of legislation and reform that had marked the early, successful years of the reign. Partly Louis wanted simply to show that he was back in control and partly he wanted to begin anew to exercise his God-given ministry on behalf of the populus Christianus. The second was to find an accommodation for Charles. In Boshof's view, and I concur, Judith was especially influential in attempts to win a place for Charles by securing the deeply aggrieved Lothar's support.

There is much to praise in this book. Boshof's treatment of foreign and military relations is solid and worthwhile. His sensitive perception of the ideological currents of the reign is quite good. His nuanced handling of the tricky issue of church property is well done. Boshof notes the importance of women to the maintenance of a Carolingian court. In particular, he offers some fascinating speculations on whether or not it was Louis' step-mother Fastrada who, at Regensburg in 791, initiated him to courtly life; some useful comments on how Louis' marriage in 794 to Irmingard made possible his own court; and helpful discussions of why some aristocrats and clergy perceived the influence of Judith to be the critical issue in the late 820s and early 830s. Boshof does a nice job of integrating theological disputes into general historical contexts. For instance, he talks about how Adoptionism divided the south and of how Amalar's speculations on the Trinity threatened the idea of imperial unity.

But there are some disappointing aspects to the book as well. My deepest regret is that Boshof just did not pursue carefully enough the issue of aristocratic politics. A great deal of prospographical research has uncovered many families and their connections. Surely the time has come to try to understand just why the nobility was riven into factions in the years after about 825. Another issue that Boshof does not treat adequately is the material basis of noble life. He does, as I have mentioned, tell us that church property was often at issue. I wish he had worked harder to explain just what was at stake. Building on Reuter's research, Boshof does mention the implications of the end of Carolingian military expansion and the slow-down in the flow of booty. But this will not do as an explanation for the period's bitter struggles over key material resources. Boshof's narrative of the crisis years is terrific in one sense, but in another sense it does not leave me understanding that period any better than I did before. One final shortcoming of the book is its failure to take seriously enough the intellectual history of the period. There are some good discussions of theological issues, for example, but always as a dimension of some other story. About ten pages in the book's last chapter attempt to sum up the cultural life of what was a creative and important period. What Boshof says is fine, indeed sometimes it is quite insightful, but there is just not enough.

Louis was, and Boshof makes this clear, more interesting than the old views would have had us believe. Supposedly so pious, Louis had to be married off by his father at sixteen before he produced any more illegitimate children. Louis was absolutely passionate for hunting. Finally, this man who allegedly hated the barbara et antiquissima carmina that were so dear to his father spoke German on his deathbed.