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Cross-Channel Marriage and Royal Succession in the Age of Charles the Simple and Athelstan (c. 916-936)

Cross-Channel Marriage and Royal Succession in the Age of Charles the Simple and Athelstan (c. 916-936)

By Simon MacLean

Medieval Worlds, Number 2, 2015

Detail of a historiated initial ‘C'(oniugium) of a priest joining hands of a man and a woman. Royal 6.E.vi, f. 375.

Introduction: The theme of this issue, decaying empires, is a difficult one to tackle because it is so hard to define what an empire is in the first place. This is certainly true of the ninth-century Frankish Empire of the Carolingian dynasty and its successor in what would become Germany, both of which are customarily included in surveys of historical empires.

A vocabulary-based definition is unsatisfactory because the contemporary terms ›imperium‹ and ›regnum‹ are too flexible to be diagnostic. Nor can we simply assume that there was an empire when there was an emperor: when Charlemagne (d. 814) revived the imperial title in 800 he had already completed most of his imperialist expanding, while his great grandson Louis II (d. 875) enjoyed imperial status despite ruling only Italy and holding no superior power over the kings in other Frankish realms.

A structural centre-periphery analysis is also problematic in that the political heartlands of the empire moved around as successive generations of rulers passed. Alemannia, for example, a peripheral area only fully incorporated into Frankish structures in the early ninth century and rarely visited by any ruler for decades afterwards, suddenly became an imperial centre under the late-ninth century emperor Charles III the Fat (d. 888) who had grown up there. And even tracing the hallmarks of Carolingian political order – its legal categories and social practices – might only get us so far, for it has been argued that, paradoxically, they were reified rather than erased in the years after the empire formally ceased to exist.


In other words, the specifics of the period illustrate the well-known difficulty of developing anything more than the most general taxonomy of empire as a historical phenomenon.

Click here to read this article from the University of St Andrews

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