Charlemagne's charter D. 79 (dated 19 February 774)

Posted: July 7, 2014, 4:50 p.m. by adminluisf

by Jinty Nelson

D. 79 at first looks ordinary: an exchange of properties between a bishop and an abbot might be presumed standard formulaic fare. Appearances can deceive. This charter is unusual in several respects. First, only four other charters of Charlemagne’s 164 produced in this 45-year reign have February dates. February was evidently a very unusual time of year for charters to be sought. It was not considered a good time for travelling, nor for the summoning of an assembly. Second, Charlemagne authorizes an exchange of properties between a bishop and an abbot which, though it is indeed based on a formula, can hardly be called standard. There are only two other confirmations of exchanges among Charlemagne’s charters: D. 136 (781), a St Denis original between Abbess Eufemia of the convent of St.-Peter, Metz and Abbot Fulrad, which uses the same formula as D. 79; and D. 161 (11 June 788, at Herstal), involving Bishop Angilram of Metz in his capacity as abbot of Gorze, and Bishop Borno of Toul, which also uses the same formula.[1] The number of confirmations of exchanges in comparison with number of charters issued is very small compared with, for example, the 23 of Charles the Bald’s 354 charters, or the 12 of Louis the German’s 171 charters. Perhaps in Charlemagne’s reign, exchanges were negotiated more often locally by the parties involved, and the king monitored such proceedings through reports from missi; or, more likely, there was simply more call for this type of document in those later reigns. 

The charters of St-Denis were sometimes produced by the beneficiary, or more precisely by St-Denis personnel.[2] In the case of D. 136, the document was produced by the royal notary Widolaicus, standing in for the chancellor Rado. In the tironian notes that follow the notary’s subscription, Widolaicus and Rado’s names are followed by that of Folradus abbas. D. 161 survives in a twelfth-century cartulary copy, which lacks the notary’s name and also the place of issue, but otherwise reproduces a normal chancery product. As in the case of other royal charters requested by beneficiaries, the king’s concession required the presence of the two parties to the exchange (they are called partes in the document) at the king’s court. In the case of D. 136, issued at Herstal in October, neither party was faced with an inordinately long journey. D. 161, shorn of its actum-place in the surviving cartulary copy, may have involved the parties in a journey to Ingelheim, where Tassilo was tried and judged before a large assembly before being shorn at St.-Goar on the Rhine, some 30 km downstream from Ingelheim, on 6 July.[3] Both of these exchanges from the 780s were ratified in the Frankish heartlands.

A final point can be made about DD. 136 and 161. At the dates when these charters were issued, Fulrad and Angilram were exceptionally influential men and very close to Charlemagne. It was no coincidence that Fulrad (in December 771) and Angilram (in 784) had successively received the honorific title of arch-chaplain: Charlemagne was in the process of upgrading the chapel. In both cases the exchange-partner could not match the importance of those in the tiny elite on whom Charlemagne relied for counsel. The field of action of the aristocratic Abbess Eufemia, documented in Lorsch charters, was bounded by family and locality,[4] and Bishop Borno’s see neighboured that of Metz but barely registered on the historiographical radar until the very end of Charlemagne’s reign when Frothar became bishop. In both DD. 136 and 161, each of the two parties was called a par or ‘equal’ of the other, but in both cases, it was the big men who acted as promoters and patrons of the transactions, garnering prestige and reinforcing networks centred on themselves.

D. 79 presents a different scenario. This is immediately suggested by the place of issue: Pavia, the Lombard capital. What had taken Charlemagne there was the pursuit of his nephews, whose widowed mother had fled with them for protection to the Lombard king after the death of her husband, Charlemagne’s brother Carloman, who died on 4 December 771. Charlemagne, after fruitless negotiations for the boys’ return, invaded the Lombard kingdom in September 773. Frankish troops had been besieging the Lombard capital since late September.[5] The chief-notary or chancellor responsible for D. 79 was ‘Idherius’, alias Hitherius, who had been Charlemagne’s missus in Italy in 770-1[6] and was now back for another stint of service.

What were the Bishop of Le Mans and Abbot Rabigaud doing there? One likely answer is that they were involved in organizing military support from men who owed it to the see and the abbey, and which the bishop and abbot now owed to Charlemagne. St.-Calais was in the see of Le Mans, and all the properties involved were situated in that county (pagus). The bishop gave an estate called Savonnières, very close to St-Calais, which belonged to the property of the church of St. Gervasius in the diocese of Le Mans, but had been founded by a seventh-century holy man called Senard or Siviard, who was buried there. In return the abbot gave the bishop property of St-Calais at Courbesin and ?Couptrain in Silly (modern Silly-le-Guillaume) a sub-division of the county (condita) near Le Mans.[7] The rationale was clear: outliers were being exchanged to consolidate the holdings of the bishopric and abbey respectively. All this sounds reasonable enough. In fact the story of competing claims on the part of these two institutions was an old one, backed by many assertions though rather seldom by royal documents, and also by a large collection of ninth-century forgeries.[8] In the Gesta of Bishop Aldric of Le Mans written c. 830, the militia secularis and the militia spiritualis were represented as strongly opposed.[9] Things had looked different in 775.

Bishops and abbots often co-existed uneasily, and the relationship between the bishopric of Le Mans and the abbey of St-Calais was at times a case in point. The bishop and abbot were, as D. 79 puts it, ‘seizing an opportunity’ to exchange some properties. They had come to Italy armed with written statements about the agreed exchanges, reinforced by the hands (i.e. attestations) of good men. ‘These they showed us’, said Charlemagne in D. 79, ‘to be read at this present time, and from them we understood [what they wanted approved]’. D. 79 presents the terms of the exchange by quoting from these statements, in which the detailed rights over property offered by the two parties are at once sufficiently similar and sufficiently different to be quite plausible. What relations were like in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign is hard to tell.

Another angle of approach points to the north-western part of Francia known as Neustria. This had a longer history of projected service as a Carolingian sub-kingdom. Grifo, son of Charles Martel by his second wife Swanhild was, thanks to his mother’s persuasion, assigned part of Neustria by his father on his deathbed,[10] but no settlement materialized. In 748, Pippin, now manoeuvering for monarchy and with a son, the future Charlemagne, born on 4 April that year, tried to buy off Grifo with ‘twelve counties in Neustria’,[11] but Grifo soon rebelled, and died in 753.  In 760, when Charlemagne was in his fifteenth year, and presumably considered of age, Pippin in an exceptional father-and-son arrangement associated him in the protectorship (mundeburdium) of St-Calais in a charter confirming the monastery’s immunity (D. 14, 10 June 760). In 768, when the Frankish kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and his brother, Le Mans and St-Calais fell within Charlemagne’s share; and in July 771 Abbot Rabigaud had come to Valenciennes to get Charlemagne’s protection for St-Calais and to have its rights of immunity confirmed in a charter (D. 62) drawn verbatim from Pippin’s grant of 760 (D. 14) but with the scribe (or just possibly the maker of the seventeenth-century copy) making a series of little changes in the four references to Charles, perhaps a jeu d’esprit, perhaps a (very!) subtle reminder of the long-term nature of the future Charlemagne’s protective role at St-Calais, as a defensive move against the Bishop of Le Mans. In 771, did the St-Calais scribe, and/or the king’s scribe recall resentfully that in 752 at the very beginning of Pippin’s reign and while Grifo still lived, the count and bishop of Le Mans, both sons of Count Rotgar, had been revolt against the new king?[12]

In 773, by contrast, the prospect of together supporting Charlemagne in Italy could have impelled bishop and abbot to strike a deal over competing local interests which may well have caused dispute already. Perhaps Charlemagne himself prompted a rapprochement. What D. 62 suggests to me is that, like the paired exchangers of DD. 136 and 161, Merol and Rabigaud were unequals – but this time the abbot, apparently the junior, outclassed the bishop in terms of his closer relationship, and hence greater potential usefulness, to their shared lord.  

That the two principals involved in the exchange of 774 are very unequally documented is already significant. Bishop Merol does appear in the Catalogue of the Actus of the bishops of Le Mans, where he is assigned a pontifical stint of 30 years. The chronology is hard to fit, though, with that of the Actus itself where Merol is said to have become, in Charlemagne’s time, a chor-bishop (assistant bishop) who subsequently became a full-bishop, and made three precarial grants to a lay tenant, one in 799, two in 801. Aldric in the 830s believed there had been a Bishop Merol, but the best evidence is that of D. 79 itself.

With the other party to the exchange, Abbot Rabigaud, there is more to go on. He had come to Charlemagne’s attention in 770 (D. 62). With Merol he had answered the call of duty in 773, seizing an opportunity to iron out a difficulty back in Maine, in the improbable location of Pavia. Fortunately for Rabigaud and Merol and the contingents for which they were responsible, it’s unlikely that they were ever tested in battle early in 774. Charlemagne personally led a swoop on Verona where his nephews and their mother ‘surrendered to the kindly king’, and he later dispatched troops to capture ‘various Lombard cities beyond the Po’[13]. It’s perhaps more likely that Merol and Rabigaud accompanied Charlemagne to Rome for Easter that year, when, to the pope’s surprise and alarm, the king approached the city ‘with various bishops, abbots, iudices, duces and grafiones with many armies’.[14] By then there was no more word in the Vita Hadriani of Charlemagne’s nephews (they were never heard of again). In June, Pavia fell after the Lombard royal family and elite capitulated because of an outbreak of sickness among the besieged.[15]

Rabigaud’s record of service to the king in 773-4 must have stood him in good stead: it’s the likeliest explanation of his being chosen as a missus in Italy in 775, to serve along with Bishop Possessor of (probably) Tarantaise who had trans-alpine interests to protect.[16] Rabigaud may have been the friend ‘Raefgot’ mentioned by Alcuin in an ‘early letter-poem… pre-780’.[17] If so, Rabigaud kept company with Riculf, the future archbishop of Mainz (787-813) and Rado the protonotary, and abbot of St-Vaast.[18] Bullough offered no reason for why he thought that Raefgot’s association with the names of Riculf and Rado told against his identification with Rabigaud. In the late 770s, all three were men who seemed likely to have brilliant futures in Charlemagne’s realm. In the event only two of them did. Rabigaud was evidently dead when his successor at St-Calais, Ebroin, received a confirmation of the abbey’s privileges from Charlemagne on 17 November 779 (D. 238).




Primary Sources:

Actus pontificum Cenomannis in urbe degentium, ed M. Weidemann, Geschichte des Bistums Le Mans von der Spätantike bis zur Karolingerzeit. Actus Pontificum Cenomannis in urbe degentium und Gesta Aldrici, Part I: Die erzählenden Texte (Mainz, 2002), pp. 31-114.

Annales regni Francorum, ed. F. Kurze, MGH SRG 6 (Hannover, 1895)

Annales Mettenses Priores ed. B. von Simson, MGH SRG 10 (Hannover, 1905)

Chronicon Vedastinum, ed G. Waitz, MGH SS XIII (Hannover, 1881), pp. 674-709.

Codex Carolinus, ed W. Gundlach, MGH Epp. III (Berlin, 1892).

Formulae imperiales, in Formulae Merowingici et Karolini aevi, ed Karl Zeumer, MGH Leges V (Hannover, 1886).

Fragmentum Annalium Chesnii, ed G.H. Pertz, MGH SS I (Hannover, 1826), pp. 33-4.

J.F. Niermeyer, Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus (Leiden, 1997)

Vita Hadriani I, Liber Pontificalis, ed L. Duchesne, 2 vols (Paris, 1886-1892), trans. R. Davis, The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis) (Liverpool, 1992)


Secondary works

J.P. Brunterc’h, ‘Le duché du Maine’, in H. Atsma ed, La Neustrie: les pays au nord de la Loire de 650 à 850, 2 vols (Sigmaringen, 1989), I, pp. 29-127

D.A. Bullough, ‘Aula renovata: the Court before the Aachen Palace’, repr. in Bullough, Carolingian Renewal (Manchester, 1991)

W. Goffart, The Le Mans Forgeries. A Chapter from the History of Church Property in the Ninth Century (Cambridge Mass., 1966)

A.T. Hack, Codex Carolinus. Päpstliche Epistolographie im 8. Jahrhundert, 2 vols (Stuttgart, 2006)

M. Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages. The Middle Rhine Valley 400-1000 (Cambridge, 2000)

M. Mersiowsky, ‘Saint-Martin de Tours et les chancelleries carolingiannes’, in P. Depreux and B. Judic eds, Alcuin de Tours à Tours: Écriture, pouvoir et réseaux dans l’Europe du Haut Moyen Âge (Rennes/Tours, 2004), pp. 73-90.

S. Patzold, Episcopus. Wissen über Bischöfe im Frankenreich des späten 8. Bis frühen 10. Jahrhunderts (Ostfildern, 2008)

A. Rio, Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages. Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000 (Cambridge, 2009),

[1] Formulae imperiales no. 3, p. 289; Rio 2009, pp. 132-9, 252-4.

[2] Mersiowsky 2004, pp. 77, 79-80.

[3] Fragmentum Chesnii, p. 33.

[4] Innes 2000, pp. 57-9.

[5] Vita Hadriani, c. 35, trans. p. 138.

[6] Codex Carolinus 46, trans. pp. 274-5.

[7] Niermeyer 1997, s.v.

[8] Goffart 1966, p. 223, 232-3; Weidemann 2002.

[9] Patzold 2008, pp. 242-5.

[10] Annales regni Francorum s.a. 741, p. 3, Annales Mettenses Priores s.a. 741, p. 32.

[11] Annales regni Francorum, p. 80, Annales Mettenses Priores, pp. 39-40.

[12] Brunterc’h 1989, pp. 41-3.

[13] Vita Hadriani c. 34, trans. p. 138.

[14] Vita Hadriani c. 35, trans. p. 138, ed Duchesne I, p. 496: ‘…diversi episcopi, abbates, etiam et iudices, duces nempe et grafiones cum plurimis exercitibus’.

[15] Vita Hadriani c. 44, p. 142.

[16] Codex Carolinus nos. 52, 56, 57, trans. pp. 281, 284-6; Hack 2007, ii, p. 1017.

[17] Bullough 1991, pp. 131-2; pace Hack 2008, ii, p. 1018, Raefgot is Old English, not Irish.

[18] Bullough 1991, pp. 128, 153-4, Hack 2008, ii, pp. 1018-9, citing Chron. Vedast., p. 705.