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04.02.48, Story, Carolingian Connections

The Medieval Review

04.02.48, Story, Carolingian Connections


Building on Wilhelm Levison's England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford, 1946), Joanna Story has investigated influence across the Channel in the other direction. Her book charts Carolingian influence on the politics of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the period from the first Carolingian king, Pippin, to the reign of Charles the Bald, or, in England, from Mercian hegemony to the eve of Alfred's succession in Wessex. The main line of argument emphasizes Carolingian models for Anglo-Saxon kingship.

The first chapter serves as a basic introduction to the subject broadly defined: Levison's work as a point of departure, Alcuin of York as a personification of the English influence on Francia in the eighth century. More important, though, is the author's discussion of evidence and methodology. While readers always welcome a discussion of the types of sources used and the problems they pose, Story's presentation here is pleasantly straightforward. Aiming her book at a general readership as well as a scholarly audience, she designed the introduction less to display her own erudition and more to familiarize the reader with the existing body of source material and appropriate questions to ask. Alcuin's letters are very important sources for the 790s; Story argues on behalf of Alcuin's actual importance, even allowing that he potentially looms larger in our view than his contemporaries thanks to the survival of his correspondence. Other epistolary sources come into play as well. Beyond letters, chronicles and coinage provide key information. Chronicles are good for Northumbria to 806, but hit-or-miss elsewhere on the island; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and court-sponsored Frankish narratives corroborate or correct other views. A good explanation of the methods and assumptions of numismatics, including new interpretations resulting from recent finds, rounds out the introduction.

Chapter 2, "Pippin, England, and the Merovingian Legacy," provides the historical background for the investigation. Story employs the twelfth-century chronicle of Symeon of Durham and his access to Continental histories to argue for a link between Pippin and King Eadberht of Northumbria. Although no text proves it, she suggests that Symeon wrote of relations between the two kings based on a source now no longer extant. Eighth-century coins featuring royal names and titles, a style used on both sides of the Channel, support her position. Further, an entire century of exchange, of both people and ideas, provided a context for Pippin and Eadberht's familiarity. Franks numbered among Augustine's mission, sent by Pope Gregory I to England, while Bertha, Frankish wife of Aethelberht of Kent, played a vital role in converting her husband and his people. Political links between Neustria and Kent lasted generations, and Story hints that the Merovingians exercised some degree of superiority over Kent. Anglo-Saxon exiles, remembering the Frankish elements in their family trees, fled to Neustria. Kent's relationship with Neustria was paralleled by East Anglian ties to the Rhineland, as revealed by modern archaeology. Evidence highlights many coming and goings of Anglo-Saxon clergy traveling to and from Rome and Frankish bishops serving in England. Of course the seventh-century saw monks, nuns, and books moving back and forth across the Channel. In the eighth century, the Austrasian power of the early Carolingians supported the missionary work of Willibrord and Boniface to the Saxons and Frisians, while the holy men bolstered Carolingian political authority and church reform. Later, Northumbrian annals kept abreast of Charlemagne's campaigns against the "Old Saxons" as missionary activity continued.

The third chapter focuses on the mission of Bishop George of Ostia and Amiens to Mercia and Northumbria in 786. Story's examination reveals the Carolingian component to George's effort: Charlemagne sent Wigbod, an abbot and scholar, to assist George, while Alcuin also played a role in the meetings, likely drafting parts of the reform program. Furthermore, the document resulting from George's mission took the form of a capitulary. This last point is important not only in terms of Franco-papal cooperation in efforts to reform the Anglo-Saxon church, but for the development of Carolingian royal practice. Story shows that Bishop George was a key figure in the development of the capitulary as a legal genre. For England, the lasting significance of George's mission was the use of Carolingian methods to solve Northumbrian problems in church and society, the decision to create a third archbishopric in Offa's Mercia, and the spread of royal anointing to England. On this last point, royal anointing, there is no strong evidence other than the "hallowing" of Offa's son in 787 and of the "consecration" of Eardwulf of Northumbria in 796. Readers should be aware, thought, that other factors besides George's mission factored into Anglo-Saxon religious kingmaking rituals.

Chapter 4 examines chronicles and letters to demonstrate that newsworthy events in England were known in Francia, and vice versa. Alcuin's letters are of course important, for they show awareness on the Continent of such events as the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the Frankish campaign against the "Old Saxons" in 779, and other insular narratives show similar concerns. Foremost in Story's presentation are the so-called York Annals, which exist in the twelfth-century Historia regum attributed to Symeon of Durham. The York annalist showed not only basic knowledge of Continental sources, but would "often add colour and detail which is unparalleled elsewhere" (61), suggesting that the knowledge was first-hand. The York Annals compare well to or even surpass Frankish sources in terms of detail and accuracy. As for who was responsible for the Frankish material in a Northumbrian chronicle, Story points out the complex case of Byrhtferth of Ramsey. Known to have edited the Historia regum in the tenth century, Byrhtferth imitated eighth-century style and may have been in a position to interpolate information on Francia into the York narrative. In the end, though, Story stresses the role of Alcuin. Alcuin was an inspiration for including Frankish material in the work, almost certainly a source for a great deal of such information, and possibly was involved in the editing process (on this Story points out that Alcuin's role as editor "is debatable" [132], but does not come down on one side or the other). What is clear is that Frankish sources were not used in York after 796, when Alcuin moved away from the royal court to St-Martin's at Tours, and when the politics of England were shaken by the deaths of kings Offa, Aethelred, and their successors, and the installation of Eanbald as archbishop of York.

Chapter 5, on "Exiles and Emperors," yields rich information about Anglo-Saxon royal refugees at the Frankish court. Chief among the examples stands the case of the deposed Northumbrian king Eardwulf, who returned "in regnum suum" with Charlemagne's help in 808. In another episode, the emperor became enraged at the assassination in 796 of Aethelred, the previous king of Northumbria. This reaction, Story explains, resulted from Aethelred's status as a fidelis of the emperor. To explain why Charlemagne involved himself to such a degree in Anglo-Saxon affairs, Story argues that Alcuin and Charlemagne "regarded Anglo-Saxon England as an outlying cog of the Frankish machine" (165) and even considered it to be within the bounds of Carolingian authority. Charlemagne imagined himself the leader of the populus christianus, including England as well as his own empire; the Anglo-Saxons seemingly regarded him in the same (or very similar) way, in that their most important exiles sought his court in the late eighth century. These exiles "enhanced Charlemagne's sense of his own importance and centrality to the political world beyond the borders of his own realm" (258). I would argue that and more, since it appears that Anglo-Saxons with a claim to authority went to the man who had the power not only to shelter them, but to aid them in attempts to gain or regain their positions.

A critique may be raised here with Story's argument about Eardwulf's elevation to the throne in 796. The sources she cites do not specify anointing, although she seems compelled to suggest that anointing may have taken place, drawing parallels to Frankish sources for Pippin's accession in 751. As she admits, there is no proof for such a ritual. It seems enough then, based on the evidence, to highlight the parallels of ecclesiastical backing for a new royal dynasty-why the preoccupation with anointing when we have no solid evidence?

The sixth chapter concentrates on relations between Mercia and the Frankish kingdom under Charlemagne. Since the dominance of Mercia coincided with the apogee of Carolingian power, Story supposes that Carolingian interactions with Kent, Northumbria, and Wessex were conditioned by relations with Mercia. The major problem is that source material related to Mercia originated elsewhere; Alcuin once again provides most of the information. Despite this issue, Story can come to some conclusions. Both kingdoms were aware of developments in the other, and both were fortunate to have long-lived kings. Although the rise of Mercian fortunes cannot be tied to Carolingian influence, it "has long been recognized" (178) that the "hallowing" of Offa's son Ecgfrith was a product of Anglo-Saxon borrowing of Frankish royal ritual; the establishment of a subkingdom in Kent is another. The other major issue of the period was the failed marriage negotiations concerning the royal children of both houses. Story emphasizes the role abbot Gervold of St-Wandrille played, alongside Alcuin, in diffusing the tension. As in other chapters, letters and numismatics help support the argument that Carolingian kingship provided a model for Anglo-Saxon practice.

The final substantive chapter, "Francia and the Rise of Wessex," brings the study to a chronological close. It is no longer Charlemagne, but Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald who represent the Frankish monarchy, and the dynasty of Alfred the Great begins to take center stage. First, though, Story examines Kent, which benefits from better source material. The archbishops of Canterbury traveled through Francia to Rome and back in 801 and in 814-815, just in time to witness important events on the Continent. This provides the backdrop for understanding church reform in Canterbury in that period. It also explains the entry of Wessex into the light of surviving sources, as its new king Ecgberht extended his power into Kent in 825. Ecgberht's reign, like that of Louis the Pious, was troubled by Viking raids and an uncertain future. The next West Saxon king, Ecgberht's son Aethelwulf, attained high status and recognition in Francia and Rome as successor to Offa in terms of English power. Aethelwulf himself traveled to Rome in 855 and to Francia to marry Charles the Bald's daughter Judith in 856. Since this was a period when both kings faced Viking threats, Story suggests that the marriage cemented an alliance against a common foe. The problem of royal anointing appears once again, this time concerning Aethelred's son Alfred. Story convincingly demonstrates that the four-year-old Alfred went to Rome in 853 as part of a delegation making arrangements for Aethelred's trip in 855. But was the boy anointed? Story raises the point but does not answer one way or the other. The reader must provide the answer: no.

Chapter 8 is a brief conclusion reiterating the importance of the history of Carolingian Francia for contemporary England. Francia owed a debt to England's religious and cultural influences, but by the ninth century, England had become part of the Carolingian world. There follows an Appendix, "Evidence of Anointing in Eighth-Century England," highlighting manuscripts of Northumbrian origin that circulated in Francia. These manuscripts contain illustrations of Old Testament anointing, proving that Northumbrians knew of such practices in the 780s, when Bishop George spoke of kings as the Lord's Anointed. However, like the discussions in previous chapters, there is no evidence of royal anointing actually being practiced in Anglo-Saxon England during this period.

Joanna Story has produced a well-researched book that engages with modern scholarship, building on others' findings as much as she revises. She musters a good array of textual sources, calling on numismatics to bolster her arguments. From time to time, the style of writing gets bogged down, making the presentation unclear, especially when she has to speculate and offer alternative explanations (e.g., for the patterns of Carolingian coins ending up in England, p. 254). Such passages might throw the general reader she and the series hope will pick up the book. But this is a trivial matter. Carolingian Connections has much to recommend it.