After Empire: Using and not Using the Past in the Crisis of the Carolingian World

In early medieval Europe, the absence of clear administrative or legal structures meant that action in the present often drew authority and legitimacy from claims about the past. Our project will investigate the uses – and non-uses – of the past in the ‘long tenth century’, i.e. the c.150 years after the end of the Carolingian Empire in 888. The creator of the empire was Emperor Charlemagne (768-814), remembered in the twentieth century, and celebrated on the anniversary of his death in 2014, as the ‘father of Europe’.

By contrast, the story of the post-Carolingian era is narrated as a tragedy – a rarely-visited and obscure valley between the creation of Europe by the family of Charlemagne and its eventual revival in the age of Pope Gregory VII (1073-85). Modern narratives define the period c.900-c.1050 by what it was not: post-Carolingian, that is a period which witnessed the disintegration of ninth-century political geography, institutions and social structures; or pre-‘Gregorian’, a turbulent interlude paving the way for a new, recognisably ‘medieval’ order of lords, peasants and powerful churchmen in the long twelfth century (1050-1200).

Since the seventeenth century it has been widely regarded as a period of disintegration, even of ‘feudal anarchy’, from whose rubble would eventually emerge the modern nations of Europe, including England, France and Germany. Our research questions are designed to take the debate beyond these paradigms of chaos and national origin. We begin from the hypothesis that a post-imperial lack of consensus about the location and nature of authority was an essential feature of the tenth century, and that this was reflected in its multiple uses of the past. Recent scholarship has shown how the hegemonic power of the Carolingian dynasty had a congealing influence on ninth-century definitions of authority and attitudes to the past in diverse textual genres (annals, histories, biographies, sermons, legislation, canon law and charters). 

The vanishing of the empire’s gravitational pull in 888 had profound effects: political authority took new shapes (e.g. the rise of sub-regnal ‘dukes’); scale-change became ubiquitous as kingdoms shrank and principalities grew; frontiers shifted and shifted again; political geography was inverted as old centres became peripheral and vice-versa; and new solidarities (the ‘Normans’, the ‘Lotharingians’) emerged from the fragments of Carolingian ‘Frankishness’. At the same time, we see changes in how ideas about the past were authorised and narrated. In the north and west, historical narratives persisted but in new patterns and genres (poems, ‘deeds of bishops’, institutional histories), while in the south king-centred narratives all but ceased.

We see an explosion in hagiography, much of it dealing with the recent rather than the distant past, and a new emphasis on local identity in sermons. Attitudes to the past are also embedded in legal texts – what did it mean to copy out Carolingian legislation in a post-Carolingian world? – and legal mechanisms such as the ‘inquisition’ and the ‘ostensio cartae’ were utilised to create definitive versions of local history, publically attested by witnesses. Charters rehearse narratives of institutional history and place their content in shorter or longer sequences of rulers and eras. Liturgical texts and canon law also embodied attitudes to the past – memorialising some pasts, ignoring others, and creating new genres, such as the pontifical.

Our hypothesis is that insecurity about social and political authority was a defining feature of the tenth century, and that solutions were sought above all through creative uses of the past. The ‘crisis’ of the post-Carolingian era was thus a productive one, driving a search for political, legal and social legitimacy in the past. We propose that these two developments – the social and political uncertainties of the tenth century and the variety and complexity of its attitudes to the past – are connected and that they throw light on each other. In drawing sustained attention to this connection, our project will illuminate a poorly-understood part of Europe’s past and reveal what was specific about it. We will show that it cannot be reduced to a history of national origins, but that there is still much to understand about a world of complex overlapping communities which were regional and transnational, legal and political, religious and secular.