Cullen Chandler

title.none: MacLean, Kingship and Politics (Cullen Chandler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0508.018 05.08.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Cullen Chandler, Lycoming College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: MacLean, Simon. Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire. Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Fourth Series, vol. 57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xix, 262. $65.00 0-521-81945-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.08.18

MacLean, Simon. Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire. Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Fourth Series, vol. 57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xix, 262. $65.00 0-521-81945-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Cullen Chandler
Lycoming College

The story of the end of Carolingian dynastic and political unity in the late ninth century is one of weak kings, ambitious aristocrats, regional separatism, and the beginnings of France, Germany, Italy, and even feudalism. Simon MacLean offers a reassessment of this story. He looks at the causes of the fall of the Carolingian empire in terms of dynastic succession and political structures rather than inevitable historical forces like the rise of the aristocracy and origins of modern nations. In MacLean's story, Charles the Fat (876-888) and company have a historical agency they lack in the age-old tale of decline and fall.

For one thing, MacLean provides the first major study devoted to the reign of Charles the Fat. Generations of scholars "knew" the decline and fall story, so they paid little attention to the actual reign itself. In part, this is a result of their over-reliance on two continuations of the Annals of Fulda written in Mainz and Bavaria. The continuators had biases against Charles and sowed the seeds of his image as a sickly, do-nothing king. MacLean's purpose is to illuminate the utility of other sources, especially royal charters but also letters and other narratives, which provide a full context for understanding the last unification of the empire and the challenges it faced. He seeks to correct three teleological assumptions: first, the crisis of state power in the late ninth century; second, regional particularism and a desire to secede from Carolingian authority; and third, Charles the Fat's deposition as indicative of a rising, class-conscious aristocracy imposing institutional limits on kingship.

After a first-chapter introduction that lays out the historiography and begins to correct the erroneous assumptions, the book proceeds through six more substantive chapters and a short conclusion. The second chapter addresses criticisms of Charles the Fat: that he was dominated by his advisers, that he was incapable of defending the empire against the Vikings, and that he was a do-nothing king. MacLean exposes the main source for these assumptions, the Mainz continuation of the Annals of Fulda, as polemical and de-privileges it as a source for the events of the reign.

The next two chapters turn to the twin issues of supermagnates and regional particularism. MacLean's major point, that Carolingian kings needed nobles to "transpose" their authority to localities, is not new. What may strike some readers is the idea that great magnates revolted in the late ninth century not to assert their independence from kings, but to reassert their closeness to them. Rebels of the 870s and 880s acted to gain Königsnähe, from which they solidified their own power locally. Thus Charles the Fat needed men like Berengar of Friuli, Bernard Plantevelue, and Odo to act as representatives of royal power, and they needed Charles to strengthen their positions. By bringing this concept to bear on the events of the period MacLean is able to demonstrate that the empire did not end because of a conflict between a declining kingship and a rising aristocracy but because of intense external pressure applied to old institutions exacerbated by uncertainty about the succession. As for the regions the supermagnates ruled, we should see their trend to separation beginning in 888, after the death of Charles the Fat, rather than that of Charles the Bald in 877 as has usually been done. Areas that had traditionally been centers of power were not under Charles the Fat, and he had no sons to install as subkings to quench the thirst for Königsnähe in the regions, working through the aristocracies instead. And although regional identities can be seen, nobles considered themselves Franks as well as, say, Neustrians or Alemans; there was no separatism based on anything like nationalism. It was the lack of a legitimate Carolingian successor to Charles the Fat that led to Arnulf of Carinthia's coup in 887 and forced magnates to assert themselves as regional princes.

Chapters 5 and 6 seek to "reconstruct the political narrative afresh to see better the causes of the empire's disintegration and also draw better conclusions on late Carolingian kingship and politics" (123-24). Of course the main theme is a crisis of dynastic succession rather than the old view of a crisis of state power. With no legitimate, male-line Carolingians to share or inherit Charles the Fat's power, the emperor tried to have his bastard son Bernard legitimized. Like the case of Lothar II two decades earlier, this, according to MacLean, involved divorcing the empress Richgard and marrying a concubine. Charles seems to have been dedicated to this plan and to excluding from imperial succession his illegitimate nephew Arnulf. When the legitimation failed because of the death of the cooperative pope Hadrian III in 885, the crisis became keener. Charles, according to some, then seems to have decided to adopt Louis ("the Blind") of Provence, Carolingian on his mother's side, but stopped short, says MacLean, merely reconciling with the family--Louis's father, Boso, had rebelled against Carolingian authority and established himself as king of Provence in 879. Meanwhile, the Viking menace did not lessen, nor did the pressures of governing the vast empire or the ambitions of Arnulf. Charles the Fat fell ill in 887; in November of that year he was deposed by Arnulf but lived only two more months. Arnulf's accession, MacLean argues, should be seen as part of the succession crisis, not a result of aristocratic dissatisfaction with the emperor.

The last chapter is an examination of Notker's Gesta Karoli. The point here is that the text is not a source for accurate representation of historical events, but a genuine commentary on kingship and late ninth-century politics. MacLean finds a thinly veiled criticism of Archbishop Liutbert of Mainz, who had previously lost his high court position on Charles the Fat's accession to the Bavarian throne. We remember from chapter two that the Mainz continuation of the Annals of Fulda were written under Liutbert's direction and were thus viciously biased against Charles, so seeing the royally sponsored work of Notker attack the archbishop is no surprise. MacLean skillfully draws from Notker's other writings to identify patterns of authorial strategy, which in turn support his argument for seeing the Gesta Karoli less as a mirror for princes and more as a political commentary. Alas, by 887 the work was out of date before it was even finished. The rhetoric of imperial power would have been ridiculous by that time, so Notker dropped the work in mid-sentence.

A short conclusion ends the book by drawing together the main strands of argument. MacLean notes his court-centered view and observes that further studies "from the perspective of the localities upwards" (234) can yield more evidence and refine our understanding of the end of the Carolingian empire. But what he himself has accomplished goes a long way toward that goal.

Overall, MacLean should be commended for this work. It is good in its use of charter evidence for dates, and for tracking down the activities and motivations of Charles the Fat and other historical actors. This effort emphasizes their agency. Along with general assumptions, he revises a number of details along the way, strengthening his argument through careful research and analysis. Thus we see charter evidence linking Odo to Charles the Fat in alliance, the imperial strategy behind spiritual commemorations at monasteries, and a refined date for Notker's Gesta Karoli. Another new book in the same Cambridge series, Jason Glenn's Politics and History in the Tenth Century (2004), which sees the writing of history as a commentary on kingship and contemporary politics, complements MacLean's approach in chapters two and seven. Major themes emerge from the study that others can take to apply to Carolingian history and history in general. The first is the recent understanding of royal-aristocratic cooperation in early medieval government. The second is the clear political angle of sources. For the reign of Charles the Fat, historians missed these crucial issues and thus built grand theories on shaky ground. This book is founded on a more solid basis, fits in well with what is known about the Carolingians, and convincingly concludes that, while the late ninth century posed tremendous challenges and while Charles the Fat was clearly not a "great" king, he was a "typical" Carolingian. "The empire was too big for one man, but then it always had been" (122, emphasis in original). The 870s and 880s saw no decline in kingship, no rise of an aristocracy or new nations, but rather a dynastic succession crisis that could not be overcome.