By Simon MacLean
Diverging Paths? The Shape of Power and Institutions in Medieval Christendom and Islam, eds. J Hudson and A Rodriguez (Brill, 2014)
Introduction: In the middle of the 880s Notker, a monk from St-Gall in what is now Switzerland, wrote a highly anecdotal and mythologising biography of Charlemagne (768-814), several pages of which are devoted to descriptions of the emperor’s reception of foreign embassies. These stories depicted the fear and respect supposedly accorded to Charlemagne by Byzantine and “Persian” (meaning Abbasid) legates who shivered before the great Frankish king and showered him with extravagant presents: “it seemed as if the East had been left bare so that the West might be filled”, as Notker put it. The king’s effortless superiority to his eastern counterparts plays out in the text through a number of sharpened motifs, including the etiquette of the hunt in addition to the formal exchange of gifts and the terrifying experience of the royal presence. But it is also noticeable that these encounters are projected by their author into the solid architectural setting of the great Carolingian palace at Aachen. The Byzantine envoys are led through a series of rooms in which they repeatedly mistake palace officials for the emperor before finally collapsing in awe before the glory of the real thing, standing before an open window at the heart of the complex. For the Abbasid embassy, meanwhile, the sickening realisation of Frankish superiority only hits home after they ascend the palace solarium from which they are able to look down upon the king’s enormous entourage. The palace here was no mere backdrop but played an active role in the narrative. The monk of St-Gall’s imagining of these encounters therefore serves to illustrate the significance of the “palatium” as a central symbol of Carolingian royal power writ large, for ideological statements about which it provided the essential setting.
Notker’s unlikely depictions of Greeks and “Persians” represented a somewhat provincial and orientalising strand in the Western imagination, and in view of this it is perhaps ironic that his description of Charlemagne’s palace (linked sequences of spaces used to control access to the ruler and emphasise his separateness) recalls less the open spaces of the real Aachen than the more intricate and intimidating layouts of the palace in Constantinople or Abbasid centres like Baghdad or Ukhaydin. But the concept of the palace as a metonym for royal or imperial power was not confined to the West. For example, the Abbasid historian Tabari (an exact contemporary of Notker’s) collapsed his explanation of the waning of Sasanian power in the seventh century into an anecdote about the physical disintegration of Khusraw II’s royal palace. The ubiquity of the royal palace as a political symbol as well as a physical structure, in the imagination as well as on the ground, is what makes it a useful “clue” for doing comparative history. As a specific category which overlaps different polities, it provides a hinge via which to consider questions of similarity and difference.