Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire

By Simon Maclean | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
THE END OF THE EMPIRE I: POLITICS
AND IDEOLOGY AT THE EAST
FRANKISH COURT

The problems facing Charles the Fat as he approached the crisis of his reign were not, it would seem, purely structural. The ‘supervisory’ nature of Carolingian government meant that it was indeed possible for one man to rule enormous tracts of territory by forming alliances with influential regional aristocrats. One man could not govern indefinitely, however. In order to understand the causes of the deposition of the emperor and the disintegration of the empire we must reconstruct the chain of events which led up to Arnulf’s coup of November 887. These events interacted with aspects of the general political backdrop we have been describing to bring about the final crisis of Carolingian imperial rule. As so often in early medieval politics, the succession was the crucial issue. The fuse was lit in late 884 by the death of Carloman II, which left Charles to rule the whole empire alone and without the immediate prospect of a son to succeed him. From this point on, as Regino pointed out, events moved with bewildering speed to a surprising outcome: ‘It was a matter worthy of note, and in the varying evaluation of the outcomes of human affairs astonishing.’1 The succession came to dominate the politics of the subsequent three years: repeated attempts by Charles to designate his illegitimate son Bernard as heir, moves against the claims of Hugh of Lotharingia and Arnulf himself, the adoption of Louis of Provence, and the divorce of the imperial couple all indicate rapid developments and frantic manoeuvrings within the configuration of the ruling house. In order to understand the nature and significance of these events, in this chapter and the next we will contextualise the changing positions of the main protagonists in the political developments of the 880s. The conventional historiographical version of these developments misleadingly foregrounds the decline of ‘state’ power and the end of imperial unity as symbols of decline. By reconstructing the political narrative of these critical years afresh, we will seek not only to understand better the causes of the empire’s disintegration, but also to suggest some broader

1 Regino, Chronicon, s.a. 887, p. 128.

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