12.05.05, Lake, ed., Richer of Saint-Rémi, Histories

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David Bachrach

The Medieval Review 12.05.05

Lake, Justin. Richer of Saint-Rémi, Histories, Volumes 1 and 2. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. xxvi,422 and 490. ISBN: 978-0-674-06003-6.
ISBN: 978-0-674-06159-0.

Reviewed by:
David Bachrach
University of New Hampshire

During the course of the mid-990s, Richer, a monk at the monastery of St. Rémi in the archiepiscopal city of Rheims, composed one of the most important narrative histories for the modern understanding of the political and military affairs of the West Frankish/French kingdom of the tenth century. Richer is otherwise unknown from contemporary sources, and the details of his family and his career, such as we have them, must be drawn from the pages of his lengthy text. In addition to giving hints about his own education and activities throughout his text, Richer also provides a rather extensive account of his father Rodulf, and particularly the latter's service in the military household of the West Carolingian king Louis IV (936-954), and subsequently in the military household of the latter's widow Gerberga during the mid- to late 950s (2.87-90, and 3.7-9).

In describing the impetus for writing his history Richer claims in his prologue that he was given this task by Archbishop Gerbert of Rheims, who subsequently was elected as Pope Sylvester II (999-1003). Whether Gerbert actually gave this commission to Richer cannot now be determined. However, it is clear that Richer had considerable personal access to Gerbert and the latter's writings, some of which he copied verbatim into the text of the Histories (3.55-65). Richer's stated goal in his text of describing the wars waged in West Francia is amply fulfilled throughout the four books of the Histories. However, it is also clear that Richer indulged his own varied interests as well. He devotes considerable attention to medical matters, discussing illnesses that killed various magnates including, for example, King Hugh Capet (4.109). Richer also was very interested in the curricula taught in schools, particularly by Gerbert, and discusses at length the cursus followed by students (3.45-54). Among the topics that particularly fascinated Richer was geometry, and the related technical issues involved in the construction of machinery, particularly siege engines. In a justly celebrated passage, Richer describes in detail the construction of a siege tower that was deployed by King Lothar IV (954-986) against the city of Verdun in 983 (3.105-106). Richer's account makes clear that he had a clear understanding of the mechanical requirements for establishing stability in a tall, moving structure, including the proper utilization of reinforcing structural elements that prevented the siege tower from tipping over while it was moved.

Richer's manuscript only survives in a single autograph copy. This text has been painstakingly analyzed by numerous scholars, including recently in a book-length study by Jason Glenn, with the result that Richer's own numerous changes in the text can be followed, and scrutinized to determine possible influences on the author over time. [1] However, one additional point that the survival of Richer's autograph manuscript raises is the likely loss of many other contemporary works of history whose authors did not benefit from the care given by Richer's ostensible patron, Gerbert, to ensure the proper handling and storage of their texts. Richer's Histories, therefore, again serve as a salutary reminder against making rash assumptions about the historiographical proclivities of any particular age based on the remnants of the scholarly output that have survived into the age of printing.

Despite his quite good sources of information, Richer largely has received a negative reception from historians, following the condemnation of his work by Robert Latouche, whose facing page French- Latin translation of Richer in 1930 provided a thorough account the author's errors, and apparent fabrications, many of which drew upon images taken from Roman historical works, particularly Sallust, but also Caesar and Livy. However, Richer's work has been rehabilitated recently by Justin Lake, the translator of the volume under review here. Lake's study on the rhetoric of plausibility makes clear that authors, such as Richer, who drew heavily on rhetorical works associated with Cicero, worked diligently to present events in a manner that were consistent with the expectations of an audience that was familiar with the subject manner being presented. [2] As a consequence, despite errors of fact, it is possible to read Richer's work as a contemporary understanding of well-known institutions, political affairs, religious beliefs, military technology and its use, military organization, and similar matters.

For the earlier part of his work, which treats events from the accession of Duke Odo of Paris in 888 up through circa 966, Richer relies heavily on the Annales of the Rheims cleric Flodoard. However, from the mid-tenth century onward, Richer also drew upon a considerable body of eye-witness testimony, and recorded his own experiences as well. Among the most important of his informants was Richer's father Rodulf who witnessed great affairs of state, and the workings of the royal court from his perspective as an officer in the military household of Louis IV and Gerberga.

In light of the importance of Richer's text, the present volume, which is among the first in the new series of facing page Latin-English translations produced by the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library under the editorial supervision of Danuta Schanzer and Jan Ziolkowski, is very welcome indeed. The handsomely produced text includes a useful introduction in which Lake discusses what is known of Richer's life and career, provides a synopsis of the main topics treated by the author, describes Richer's use and alteration of Flodoard's Annales, considers the value of the Histories for gaining understanding of the history of tenth-century Francia, and discusses the principles used in the translation of the text.

Lake properly chose to include a substantial apparatus for both the text and translation of the Histories, which is divided into two volumes, covering respectively Books 1-2, and Books 3-4. The notes for both the text and translation are included in separate sections at the end of each volume, and are divided conveniently by book. The notes section in each volume is followed by a brief bibliography of editions, translations, and selected studies. The second volume of the work also is equipped with an index of people and places, and is keyed to both volumes of the text.

Overall, Lake's translation is excellent, demonstrating both his skill as a Latinist, and his ability to produce a fluid and highly readable account. These skills are particularly on display in Lake's translation of highly technical passages including Richer's discussion of "The construction of a solid sphere" (3.50) and "The construction of a sphere for the use in studying planets" (3.52). The one area in which Lake's translation, although skillful, is misleading relates to military affairs, and particularly his decision to make use of the terms vassal and knight. As a consequence, it may be the case that historians, who do not have Lake's excellent Latin skills, will be misled by reading only the translation and ignoring the facing page Latin text.

Consequently, it should be noted that Richer does not use vassus, vassallus, or any derivatives of these terms in his work. Lake, however, consistently deploys the term vassal to translate militatum, the supine of militare. Lake also uses the term vassal to give the sense of passages where Richer is indicating that a particular individual becomes the loyal supporter of another. For example, in discussing the return of Louis IV from exile in England in 936, Richer records that after Hugh and the remaining principes of the West Franks recalled Louis, eiusque fiunt. This is translated as "became his vassals." The use of the term vassal is misleading in both contexts because it brings with it the penumbra of "feudal" expectations that cannot be sustained in the wake of Susan Reynolds' demolition of the entire "feudal" construct in her work Fiefs and Vassals. [3] It would be truer to Richer's text and more accurate to translate militatum as promising or intending military service, and eius fiunt as became his men or his loyal supporters.

In many cases Lake properly translates milites either as fighting men or as soldiers. In a few cases, however, Lake translates milites as knights, as in the example of King Odo's muster of an army against the Vikings (1.7). More frequently, Lake translates the term equitatus as knights. In either case, the use of knight is both anachronistic and misleading. The English term knight brings with it a bundle of juridical, social, and economic concepts that were irrelevant to the reality of warfare or political organization of tenth-century West Francia. There was no "knightly class" in the tenth century, nor was warfare dominated by aristocratic warrior elite, much less by equestrian combat.

Richer, like his source Flodoard, and also like his contemporaries Widukind of Corvey, Thietmar of Merseburg, and Dudo of St. Quentin, used the term milites to identify professional soldiers, who are distinguished from fighting men who were not professionals. Richer, as was true of all of his contemporaries, describes military organization in a manner consistent with the traditional Carolingian tri-partite system. The great bulk of the male population was responsible to serve in defense of their home districts. A smaller subset of the male population, selected on the basis of their greater wealth, was required to serve on military campaign beyond the borders of their home districts. Finally, the smallest subset of fighting men consisted of professional soldiers (milites), who served in the military households of great magnates and of the king.

However, this one concern regarding the translation of military terms should not be allowed to overshadow Lake's considerable accomplishment in this work. He has produced an excellent and well-augmented translation, which likely will remain the standard text of Richer in the English-speaking world for many decades to come. I highly recommend this translation for use in western civilization courses, medieval survey courses, and more specialized courses dealing with the Carolingian empire or the history of medieval France. I also recommend this text for Latin courses that provide students with an opportunity to grapple with medieval texts.



1. Jason Glenn, Politics and History in the Tenth Century: The Work and World of Richer of Reims (Cambridge, 2004).

2. Justin C. Lake, "Truth, Plausibility, and the Virtues of Narrative at the Millennium," Journal of Medieval History 35 (2009): 221- 238.

3. Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford, 1994).

Article Details

Author Biography

David Bachrach

University of New Hampshire