IMC 2006: Sessions

Session 605: Texts and Identities, V: Who's Afraid of Louis the Pious, 2

Tuesday 11 July 2006, 11.15-12.45

Sponsor:Institut für Mittelalterforschung, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften / Utrecht Centre for Medieval Studies, Universiteit Utrecht / Faculty of History, University of Cambridge
Organisers:Mayke de Jong, Instituut Geschiedenis, Universiteit Utrecht
Helmut Reimitz, Institut für Mittelalterforschung, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien
Moderator/Chair:Jinty Nelson, Department of History, King's College London
Respondent:Jinty Nelson, Department of History, King's College London
Paper 605-aConfusion vs. Caritas and Unitas: Louis the Pious and his Contemporaries
(Language: English)
Philippe Depreux, Mission Historique Française en Allemagne, Göttingen
Paper 605-bThe Short History of the Annales regni Francorum after 829: Historiographical Continuities and Discontinuities in the Reign of Louis the Pious
(Language: English)
Helmut Reimitz, Institut für Mittelalterforschung, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien
Paper 605-cLouis the Pious: The Case Against
(Language: English)
Stuart Airlie, Department of History, University of Glasgow

This title is a deliberately flippant one, but it does adequately cover the contents of these two sessions, which address the reputation of the Emperor Louis the Pious (814-840) among his contemporaries and in modern historiography. For 9th-century historians and commentators, as well as for their modern colleagues, this emperor has been seen as a controversial figure, as a weak ruler under the thumb of monks and bishops, but also as an effective and mighty monarch. In 1990, a large collection of papers reappraising and revising ‘The Great Father’s Little Son’ appeared, without making much impact on subsequent publications. Historians attempting a more positive approach to this ruler remain in the minority. The absence of a critical edition of Louis’s charters certainly hampers research, but the conflicting images of this ruler are even more determined by differences of opinion about his actions in the so-called years of crisis (828-834), which were not treated in the 1990 volume.
During these years, Louis survived two rebellions and one public penance. The effects of these crucial years are still debated. Did Louis truly survive this crisis, i.e. was he capable of ruling effectively, or was his subsequent reign that of a lame duck? Was the imperial penance of 833 in Soissons the manipulative action of a group of power-hungry bishops, or did such a gesture of atonement somehow make sense to all concerned? Did Louis allow himself to be led by Judith, to the extent that he deserted his most loyal followers, and in fact prepared the ground for the disintegration of the empire in 840-843, or is this wisdom based on hindsight? Did Louis’ reign depend on loyal aristocrats who were thrown into turmoil by his conflicts with his sons, or did this emperor have to cope with those who faithlessly followed Lothar at the drop of a hat? Was Louis afraid of his bishops, or were his bishops afraid of Louis? Was his style of ruling, as a Christian emperor, radically different from that of Charlemagne, or should we pay more attention to continuity, for example with regard to a biblically-determined world-view? Was this world-view a matter of the clergy, first and foremost, or was it also shared by the ruler and his lay proceres? Should we treat a text like De institutione regia as a theoretical treatise, far removed from the realities of political practice, or is this reflection on a royal behavioural code precisely the historical reality we can and should grasp?
We can continue to sum up such either/or questions that are still a source of disagreement. There is no such thing as solid proof, at least not in most cases, but what one can do is attempt to re-read and re-evaluate the extant sources very carefully, with the question in mind as to whether particular 9th-century authors have been allowed to dominate the modern image of Louis too much, and if so, why. One of the problems has been the handling of narrative sources. One either chooses an author who is more reliable than the other (say, Nithard), or who supplements a particular source (say, Thegan) with another that is more extensive (say, the Astronomer), thus creating a more or less ‘complete’ picture. What needs to be done, however, is to analyse such texts in their entity and interdependency, making the most of the contradictions between various narratives in order to highlight a given author’s specific representation and perspective. The other problem has been the place of Christianity in Louis’s reign, and the readiness with which religion has been equated with the Church in the sense of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Among the 9th-century elite, the religio christiana was not something that could be manipulated in a detached fashion, either to legitimate political action, or to put the fear of God into one’s opponents. The sense that the social order was rooted in the correct cultus divinus, and the constant fear that God might have been offended, were realities shared by kings, bishops, and lay aristocrats alike. It is also at the basis of the 9th-century historiography about Louis the Pious that will take centre stage within these two sessions.