We also begin to say goodbye to Liutprand of Cremona. As promised in the episode, here is my essay discussing the works of Liutprand. I worked hard on this, it is longer than the episode. Please enjoy.
Liutprand of Cremona: Critic, Shil, Dolt
Liutprand of Cremona has a wide ranging importance in our story, despite being a fairly unpleasant person by modern standards. His work gives us direct access to the political events of his time, and the period just before his time, despite a frankly impressive level of bias. Possibly more important are the things we can learn about his time period from the things he says unintentionally, which ultimately means that, no matter how off putting he is, we have to deal with him. The jerk.
Biography and Works
Liutprand was born in Pavia around 920. Pavia was the historic capital of Lombard Italy, and like most Lombard noble families, his family combined extensive land ownership with the patronage derived from participation in the imperial bureaucracy to become very wealthy. His father died when liutprand was young, but his stepfather took good care of the family and was viewed with paternal affection by liutprand in his works.
Liutprand’s family secured him a place as a page at the court of King Hugh, and eventually was enrolled in the school of the bishop of Pavia, rising to the level of deacon within the bishop’s court. In the middle ages, Deacons were highly important ordained members of the clergy that served important functions in a bishop’s administration, and was a necessary step on the way to becoming a bishop oneself. As such it was an often coveted position for those seeking to become bishops. This educational period was very conveniently timed, as it allowed Liutprand and his family to distance themselves from King Hugh during that king’s political decline. When Berengar II took the throne, Liutprand transitioned back to the court and became Berengar’s personal secretary and even the chancellor. Berengar undertook many missions for the court, and as a greek speaker was an obvious choice to undertake a mission to constantinople for Berengar. Much of what we know about the Eastern Roman Imperial Court at this time comes from Liutprand’s accounts.
When Liutprand returned he had a falling out with Berengar, possibly due to Berengar’s failure to compensate Liutprand for the cost of the expedition east, but also possibly due to Berengar’s rapidly changing political circumstances. Whatever the cause, Liutprand again managed to distance himself from a king just before the hammer fell, fleeing to Otto’s court.
With Otto’s conquest of Italy Liutprand was installed as the bishop of cremona, though of course he continued to attend court with otto and undertake important diplomatic missions for the king. It is during this period that Liutprand met a christian ambassador from muslim Spain, with whom he struck up a friendship. This man encouraged Liutprand to begin his chronicle, the antipodosis, a task which was probably made much easier by otto’s clear patronage of a number of other chroniclers. The chronicle ends somewhat abruptly, and many historians argue that his works were broken up more by intervening life events rather than any decision on Liutprand’s part to conclude the work. It is possible that the events he describes in his second book, The Deeds of Otto, were what interrupted his work on his first book. This second book crams a fairly short period full of over the top praise for his patron. The effect is rather embarrassing to read, but it is again one of the only sources to deal with the events of the time period. Given that those events involve Otto removing a pope from office, it is probably not unrelated that most of the church based chroniclers did not touch this subject. It also shows the depth of Liutprand’s fanaticism that he chose to support Otto over the pope in his work.
Liutprand’s second book describes primarily his second trip to constantinople. Much more detailed than his account of his first trip, this work is fairly interesting in the study of Liutprand himself. Liutprand’s report of the great city is glowing and awed in The Antapodosis, as Liutprand was a young man from an area that was a political and economic basket case. For his second trip, however, Liutprand traveled as the representative of a powerful king to whom Liutprand was desperately loyal. Otto and the Eastern Romans had also begun to have military and diplomatic conflicts at the borders of their empires, and so Liutprand may have had his awe of the East somewhat diminished by these conflicts. But of course, Liutprand was also not a young man anymore. He was less naive and less taken in by the great city, despite his continuing Grecophilia. And so, Liutprand is much more critical of the Eastern Romans in this book, but then I suppose Liutprand being hostile and critical should not be overly surprising.
Liutprand may have been involved in a third embassy to the great city, but if he was, he probably died either on the mission or shortly after his return. In any case, there is no book from him on this journey, so if he went at all, he did not get a chance to write up this trip. Whatever the case, his successor as bishop of Cremona was installed in 973, and so his death was probably around that time.
Liutprand as a Source
Liutprand’s value as a source comes in roughly three forms. For certain events and periods, he is the only source who gives a full narrative account of events. Notably, the period of italian history After Arnulf’s invasion and before Berengar II took the throne, and then also the events surrounding Otto’s deposition of Pope John XII. Liutprand is also a primary source, even if he wrote after the fact, which makes his testimony quite important for the periods he witnessed. In this category we can place his trips to Constantinople, which are amongst the only first hand accounts we have of the court from an outsider. His reflections on the reigns of Hugh, Berengar II, and Otto also contain numerous eyewitness elements. Third and probably most important are the things he tells us by accident, about himself, his time period, and the way people lived. No matter the value one is trying to pull from Liutprand, the historian must sift Liutprand’s accounts with extraordinary care due to his extensive biases and loose relationship with reality. Some discussion of these biases and how they affect one’s ability to use him as a source may help you, my listeners, if you choose to undertake any further researches. It should be said that hundreds of historians have made careers out of this topic, and this is only a brief summary.
Liutprand was a chauvinistic prude who hated women and looked for religious justifications for everything that happened in his tales. Even in a time where such things were broadly the norm, his contemporaries felt that his vitriol might take things a bit far. This makes him endlessly interesting to read, in the same way one cannot seem to tear oneself away from the comments section of a youtube video. As i have discussed this aspect of Liutprand at some length in the show, I will not dwell on it here, but basically any time Liutprand discusses women one should probably treat it as a lie. Moreover, any time there is an issue where a church figure is involved, one can be sure that Liutprand probably takes the side of the church.
One thing I have avoided discussing in the show, basically to avoid spoilers, has been Liutprand’s clear political biases. Liutprand was given his bishopric at cremona by Otto. Liutprand was very much otto’s man, and boy does it show. The dude redefines the term brown noser. This is most obvious whenever Otto comes up directly in the narrative, as Liutprand is prone to breaking into reams of lyrical verse in his books, flattering the great king and emperor. This is along the lines of how Tolkien sprinkles the Lord of the Rings with poetry, except that Tolkien’s poetry was originally written in English. I am told by people who know these things that Liutprand’s poetry is very good in iambic hexameter, and he has been called the finest latinist of his age. Unfortunately iambic hexameter does not translate basically at all into english, and so the result is pretty mediocre. The fact that almost all the poetry is over the top flattery of Otto makes Liutprand’s political biases much more infuriating to read than even liutprand’s absurd sexism. While both his brown nosing and his sexism reveal a deeply defective personality, Liutprand’s praise of Otto is also poorly written and boring, at least in English.
I seem to have slipped into literary criticism, so let me just add that liutprand is also super eager to convince the reader of his own intelligence and education. He sprinkles his prose and poetry with references to greek mythology and greek phrases, something which marked him as an intellectual super elite in a time when most people were illiterate, and few could read latin, let alone greek. While reading his works, one often wishes that one could reach back in time and bop liutprand on the back of the head with a sturdy board.
There are some less obvious ramifications of Liutprand’s pro-Otto slant. It is really impossible to tell how liutprand honestly felt about figures like Berengar I or Hugh, or even Berengar II, because his relationship with these figures is recast so clearly in terms of how they relate politically to the rule of Otto. The main villain of the story is Berengar II, with whom Otto was often actively at war, and so Berengar I and to some extent Hugh are given a pass from a moral standpoint because they in some way opposed Berengar II. More broadly, we see Liutprand’s portrayal of the Eastern Roman Empire change based on their conflicts with Otto, and he even defends Otto when Otto removes Pope John XII from office. This aspect of Liutprand is thus all pervasive in his works, to a degree that some historians miss.
As a result of his clear and infuriating biases, Liutprand’s historical narrative and eyewitness testimony needs to be treated with extreme suspicion. Luckily, in the latter time periods under discussion we do have other sources to cross reference against. Notably the Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, The Deeds of Recent Times by Arnulf of Milan, and The Deeds of the Saxons by Widukind. In earlier time periods we have some help from the Chronicle of Fulda and the Deeds of the Southern Lombards. These other sources do not get us everything, but they do help us gauge how bad liutprand is, and how suspicious to be of his work in the intervening periods. Of course, many of these outside sources were also church figures patronized by Otto, and so I tend to think erring on the side of extreme caution is a good idea.
Liutprand and Social Attitudes.
The weaknesses of Liutprand as a source have long been understood, and many historians excuse their use of him by noting the value gained from reading between the lines. As Paul Collins says in The Birth of the West, “While the accuracy and objectivity in Liutprand’s writings must be weighed carefully, he does provide us with insights into the attitudes of the age...Liutprand has left us sketches of personae, masks of how people presented themselves and were perceived by others, rather than an examination of their intimate selves.”
I have little patience for this use of Liutprand. The work of modern historians has thrown this interpretation of his work into extreme doubt. While the middle ages were certainly not some kind of libertarian paradise, it is highly doubtful that all of or even most of his contemporaries shared in his extreme misogyny, or his religious and political fanaticism. Of those who did, few seem to have shared them to the mind numbing extremes claimed by Liutprand.
On the matter of women, we have already discussed in the show to some extent the variety of ways that women participated in medieval society. In italy, there is strong evidence that women helped manage the bureaucracy. Throughout europe there were religious institutions of various types available for religiously inclined women, and exceptional women who emerged from those institutions were often able to attain high status within the church hierarchy, even holding power over men. Even within Liutprand there is the case of Adelheid, a woman beyond reproach if only because reproaching her would have endangered Liutprand’s relationship with her husband.
Even within church circles Liutprand’s personality was probably fairly extreme, and it is highly questionable how far his militant misogyny carried outside of the sexually stifled world of the cleric. Of course we should not imagine the middle ages as a period of bra burnings and sexual liberation. The fact that the clergy were already, by this point, expected to be celibate does show the difficult relationship that the church had with women and sexuality. As the church was the home of essentially all mass scale intellectual life in the middle ages, this view would be destined to spread, at least initially, with the return of education in European society. But we should not see the eventual spread of this attitude it as evidence that it was a majority opinion in an earlier time. To do so is to understand history backwards. While of course there is plenty of evidence of misogynistic opinions held during this and earlier time periods, reaching well back into the pre christian days of the Roman Empire, we cannot draw a completely straight line between that evidence and the kind of puritanical moral panic we see in Liutprand. Instead, given the evidence discussed above and the somewhat libertine reputations of greek and italian women during this time period indicates to me an extreme lack of homogeneity in cultural attitudes towards women outside of the monasteries.
This brings us to question the nature of the relationship between secular society and the church and, by extension, the relationship of society with the structures of power manifested in the monarchies and upper aristocracies in Europe. This is a huge topic that will be the subject of several upcoming episodes. Suffice it to say that Liutprand’s attitudes towards the nature of society and the role of the church are clearly not held by many others, as evidenced by their actions. The Monarchies throughout Europe would, of course, face rebellions and political opposition of various kinds through the middle ages, consisting of everything from succession disputes to peasant uprisings and everything in between. The church, while in some ways separate from secular power structures, was involved enough to become embroiled in many of these social conflicts. While this topic is extremely complex, it is clear that monarchs were not considered to be due blind obedience, not was the aristocracy, and nor was the church. Even in Liutprand there is some sense that bad kings and bad popes require correction, and though he clearly did not intend this, in such intellectual wiggle room are birthed political conflicts. To Liutprand anyone who opposed Otto was either evil or ignorant, but if it is possible to have a bad king in need of correction then that leaves space for people to earnestly think Otto was a bad king.
But this discussion ignores the biggest social division in the middle ages. Bigger than the gender gap, bigger than the division between secular and lay was the division between the peasantry and the nobility. All the political actors discussed in Liutprand hail from the latter category, while the vast mass of the European population hailed from the former. For the peasantry, most political issues probably revolved around their relationship with local power structures, and any interaction with the monarchy would have been theoretical at best. From a religious standpoint, the peasantry at this time would be lucky if they even had a parish priest. If they had one, he might not actually know latin. So the peasantry's interaction with the church hierarchy was necessarily limited.
How the peasantry viewed their relationship with the church and the monarchy is thus a massive topic. But what we can say is that their cultural norms and practices likely had a fairly limited resemblance to those of Liutprand. While undoubtedly the cultures interacted, there is a fair amount of evidence that the ability of the hierachs to project their culture downward was limited at this time, and so the two cultures probably existed in parallel.
Reading Between the Lines
The above cautionary note should not be taken to mean that Liutprand tells us nothing about his time and place. It is just to say that Liutprand's society was, like all societies, not monolithic. The attitudes and characteristics we can glean from his interrogating his work must themselves be interrogated to place them in their proper context within the wider early medieval society. Though this may seem to severely limit the value if his work, I do agree that this aspect of his work the most illuminating, if taken with the proper levels of caution.
Let us start unpacking Liutprand a bit with his biography. The picture we have of Liutprand is mostly based on biographical details he let slip in his narrative, and so some of them are suspicious. For example, how far he advanced politically in Berengar II’s administration is a bit questionable. But for most of it we don’t have a reason to doubt him, or we have been able to confirm details through other sources, which allows us some leeway to reflect on what his personal story tells us about his society.
In terms of his early life, we can draw a few key lessons about society in Italy in the middle ages, that seem to be confirmed by other information. First and most importantly, family was key, and the close affection and loyalty towards family extended to what we might call non-nuclear family units. We will touch on this much more in a few upcoming episodes, but what we in the USA assume is a “Normal” family unit has historically been anything but, and the idea that parents and children would occupy their own house was particularly foreign to southern Europe in the early middle ages. Given this basic social unit of the extended family, we see evidence of this social unit acting very much in its own interests, forming its own policies in relation to the wider conditions. When Hugh was ascendant, the family ensured Liutprand key positions in his administration. When Hugh was on the decline, the family distanced themselves.
We also see directly here the way the Lombard aristocracy of Italy differed from the aristocrats of Northern Europe. Liutprand’s family were wealthy, and undoubtedly they owned land. But they chose to live in Pavia, the center of bureaucratic power and source of patronage. This was key to the acquisition of more wealth and power. By staffing the bureaucracy, Italian aristocrats maintained their status. As the regional bureaucracy broke down, these aristocrats would either transfer their loyalty to another regional power, or else they would transfer their loyalty to a local version of the state. Liutprand took the former course, first transferring from Hugh to Berengar II, and then transferring to Otto. As a result of his efforts, he would become something of a local center of power himself, holding the city of Cremona for Otto in his role as bishop.
Finally we have the matter of Liutprand’s education. Much is made by historians of the Carolingian and Ottonian renaissances of Northern Europe. Charlemagne and Otto used the growing monastic movement to found schools throughout their empires, and the schools and religious institutions that resulted have left us some of the only written works from this time period. But it should be noted that the state of Italian education probably differed from that in northern Europe, and that it was probably not worse. The religious institutions of Italy had survived the fall of the empire, and if Charlemagne may have started the project of reinforcing these survivals economically, his was not the only hand at play. Notably the monastery at Monte Casino was founded by St. Benedict during the time of the Gothic kingdoms, and the rule of St. Benedict would have precedence in European monasticism right up until the foundation of the Cluny monastery in 910. We also know that greek monasteries survived around Italy until probably around the time period we are discussing, indicating that there continued to be cultural exchanges between the Eastern and Western churches, and these institutions undoubtedly had the fiscal resources to maintain themselves. While Charlemagne diverted new resources to the popes and, thus to the churches around Italy, it isn’t clear to me that new schools were necessarily set up. After the disintegration of the empire, it was local Italian dynasties that came to the aid of the church in its educational mission. Initially of course this was in the form of continued aid from the descendents and heirs of Charlemagne, often via the popes, but as time went on others took over this role. Despite Liutprand’s vitriol, the Theophylact dynasty did quite a lot to shore up monasticism in and around Rome, including diverting new resources to Monte Casino, and helping to establish the Cluny Monastery in France.
So by the time of Liutprand, it should be understood that there were a large number of educational establishments around Italy. This is often overlooked because of the relative dearth of literary sources from italy, but there are a number of reasons for this that go beyond the presence or absence of trained writers. Notably, the lack of a stable dynasty to first commission and then preserve a chronicle was a key issue. And it isn’t like there are no sources from Italy, there are just fewer chronicle type sources. We have a wealth of non-narrative sources, like church records, which were often ignored by historians before the 1930s. The work of reconstructing Italian history in the Early Middle Ages is thus, in effect, a few decades behind that of the Northern European states, but that doesn’t mean people were uneducated.
It should also be said that the level of educational achievement we are talking about in general is pretty rudimentary. Liutprand was, without a doubt, very highly educated for a European of his time. We know this because he seems to have known some math, he was an expert in Latin, and he was conversant in Greek. If we were to relate this to a modern level of educational attainment, we could probably say roughly that Liutprand had the equivalent of a master's degree in latin, a high school education in Greek, and a primary school education in math. His understanding of other subjects would probably fall somewhere between primary school and middle school. This is not a fully fair comparison, given the greater heights modern scholarship has attained in these subjects, but overall I would suggest that by the time of his death Liutprand had intellectual achievements similar to that of a freshman in college. This achievement was the result of a lifetime of study at the most prestigious educational institutions on the continent. And, it should be said, Liutprand was exceptional, even within the class of educated people. For most people in Europe, of course, any kind of education was simply unavailable. For the aristocracy, those slated for a career in the clergy would, with hard work and determination, probably be able to attain what we might call basic literacy in math, reading, and writing. Most secular aristocrats would not have learned to read, though by the time of Otto’s empire there was some expectation that at least the big magnates would be literate.
In Italy, by contrast, the role of the aristocracy was to staff a regional bureaucracy, and that went for secular aristocrats, clergy, and, in all likelihood, both men and women. And so we should expect that a much higher portion of these aristocrats would have attained some kind of education. Some of them would definitely have valued education for its own sake, if only as a marker of social status. We can see this in Liutprand’s discussion of his stepfather, who shrugs off the financial burden of paying for Liutprand’s trip to Constantinople due to the educational possibilities available to Liutprand while there.
So to review, liutprand himself started his early education at the court of King Hugh, with more structured education at the Bishop’s school. Further education was acquired somewhat haphazardly over the course of his life at local monasteries, during visits to constantinople, at Otto’s court, and through correspondence with friends and relatives. Whatever his other flaws, Liutprand’s commitment to his own education is certainly laudable. For those less committed to educational achievement, but who wanted to acquire the skills necessary to participate in aristocratic society, we can infer from Liutprand and other sources that, scattered around Italy there were monastic schools, bishop’s schools, court schools serving the Kings and larger dukedoms, all of which would probably have resulted in a society with at least as much education as that held north of the alps, even if it produced less historical literature.
How this translated to women is not entirely clear, but we do know that there were religious institutions that catered to women under various names, and, given that we have evidence of educated women, these establishments likely served a similar educational role as their male counterparts. We also know Adelheid, who spent most of her early life in Italy, was a big patron of the arts and was in all likelihood literate. We also see women at various points in Liutprand’s story staffing the bureaucracy, something that is not direct evidence of literacy but is a strong suggestion of it. We cannot entirely discount the presence of homeschooling, but there would seem to be evidence of such widespread literacy here as to require some additional avenues for education.
Be that as it may, based on the evidence from Liutprand and other sources, we can say with some confidence that there were a large number of schools in Italy that produced pupils with an educational achievement level somewhat equivalent to a modern primary school education. Though paltry by modern standards, and probably an educational decline from the days of the Roman Empire, I think it is clear that the density of educational achievement was at least as high Italy as it was elsewhere in Europe. The fact that we don’t generally get this from historical narratives of this time says more, I think, about the geopolitical power of northern europe both in the middle ages and in modern times than it does about the actual conditions on the ground.
There are a number of points which flow from this conclusion. Italy in general seems to have been more cultured and, in modern terms, more prosperous. From liutprand and other sources there is clear evidence of a complex society, with the persistence of slavery, the availability of luxury items, and ongoing trade. For example, The gifts that Liutprand brings to Constantinople on his first trip is a group of Eunuch slaves procured by his step father for the purpose. While frankly a horrible practice from a modern point of view, eunuchs were a very valuable commodity in the empires of the ancient world, and the height of culture and luxury for those able to possess them. In other sources, notably the lives of the popes, we see repeatedly that the religious institutions of the time period were outfitted with silks, gold, silver, and fancy stone work. When these churches were plundered by the saracens, the magyars, or even the local gentry, these goods were simply replaced.
So from an economic standpoint, Liutprand can help us clarify our view of the middle ages. We should understand that the image of post apocalyptic collapse we are often given in historical narratives may overstate things. Italy was not as well off as it had been, of course, but it was not a complete basket case. Society persisted, luxury was available. Whether that luxury could be mobilized for the preservation of state was, of course, another matter entirely.
As I close out this essay, we are also essentially closing out our usage of Liutprand on the show. We will soon pass out of his time period, and so we must leave him behind. What can we say about an author who has been so constant a companion over the last year or so of episodes?
Liutprand is many things. A prude of the highest order, he also possessed the rhetorical skills and imaginative powers of a twitter troll. As with many such men, Liutprand was extremely convinced of his own intelligence, and he liked to show this off with literary flourishes intended to make his audience feel inadequate by comparison. Balancing out his notorious hostility to, well, everyone, was a frankly sickening, sycophantic regard for Otto. Liutprand’s one evidence of personal growth concerns the Eastern Romans. He is somewhat in awe of them in his account of his first visit, but becomes much more hostile in the second. Because of course he was.
But then the fact remains that educated professionals have continued to read his work for more than a thousand years, and they will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. That Liutprand’s value as a source comes in spite of his skills as an author and historian, rather than because of them, does not mean that we can ignore his work. As we have discussed, he is often one of only a few sources who, in any way, tried to piece together the events of his era. In a terms of authors writing close to the time periods in question, he is often entirely alone. While non-narrative evidence from this period is becoming more valuable every year, historians need some framework in which to contextualize the documents they find. At least for now, Liutprand is all we have in many cases. As a primary source he must be treated with suspicion, but so must all primary sources, and the wide range of his activities in the context of the medieval mediterranean means that he provides insight to some rather unique facets of the era.
Still, it is probably in the third aspect of Liutprand that we learn the most. As is often the case with sources of this type, the things let slip in passing, things he assumes that the reader understands as trivial, are often the things that help the modern historian most contextualize Liutprand’s time and place. A gifted student from what we might now call a blended family, Liutprand made use of the many educational opportunities of his life to advance far in the political and intellectual establishment of his time. That establishment was itself supported by a society and an economy that was hardly as moribund as we often think.
And so, despite his being an insufferable and unpleasant person, let’s all all bid liutprand a fond farewell. Despite his hostility to most of his contemporaries, he has allowed us to get to know them far better than I suspect he would have liked. Through his work we learn of strong women, dynamic families, intrigue, power, and some amusing characters. Through his frenzied erotic fever dreams, we glimpse the real people of the middle ages, and we get just a little bit closer to knowing them despite a thousand years of distance. So long, Liutprand. You have been a very unpleasant person to have gotten to know, but you lived in interesting times.