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The Frankish World: 750-900.

The Frankish World, 750-900. By Janet L. Nelson. (London and Rio Grande, OH: Hambledon Press, 1996. Pp. xxxi, 256. $60.00.)

This is the second volume of Janet Nelson's essays to be reprinted and published by Hambledon Press. The first volume, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe, appeared in 1986 and contained seventeen essays published between 1971 and 1983. The present volume makes available thirteen more studies, originally published between 1986 and 1993. Since several of these essays were first contained in Festschriften, their appearance here makes them available to a wider audience.

As Nelson notes in the preface, these essays "reflect my continuing preoccupation with Carolingian politics and ritual, my growing appreciation of early medieval political thought, and my deepening interest in gender history." The focal points of her preoccupation range from "Literacy in Carolingian Government" to "Women at the Court of Charlemagne." Even so, several major themes continue to dominate her work and can be found in virtually all of these essays.

The first of these themes is the author's insistence on the vitality of the Carolingian ninth century. Despite the years indicated in the title, Nelson concentrates almost exclusively on the ninth century, and her reasons for doing so are expressed most clearly in "Rewriting the History of the Franks." Unlike the earlier views of Carolingian disintegration commencing during the last years of Charlemagne's lifetime, Nelson lauds the emphasis of more recent historians on later Carolingian political vitality and creativity. She clearly seems pleased with those who "cut Charlemagne's imperial coronation down to size" (172).

A second theme, which appears in most of the essays, concerns the importance of words in Carolingian politics and society. Whether this concerns literacy in Carolingian government or the degree to which women influenced those around them with words ("Women and the Word in the Earlier Middle Ages"), Nelson forces one to rethink and dismiss the traditional view of the early medieval period characterized by invisible women and a few literate clerics.

Many of the essays concern the Frankish aristocracy and the author's views of aristocratic solidarity and cohesion, both lay and ecclesiastical, and these comprise a third theme in the book. Nelson emphatically rejects the idea of lay and ecclesiastical dichotomy in the ninth century in "The Last Years of Louis the Pious" and oufiines instead the role of lay and ecclesiastical political consensus in Carolingian politics ("The Intellectual in Politics"). Rather than being paralyzed by chronic division, Carolingians ruled through a carefully constructed aristocratic consensus.

A final theme, scattered throughout several studies, is Nelson's conviction that Carolingians were influenced by rituals that enabled solidarity and consensus. Ninth-century Carolingians were acquainted with the rituals of knighthood ("Ninth-Century Knighthood: The Evidence of Nithard"), used rituals in settling disputes ("Dispute Settlement in Carolingian West Francia"), and developed new rituals of king-making ("The Lord's Anointed and the People's Choice: Carolingian Royal Ritual").

Throughout the essays, Nelson demonstrates her usual mastery of Carolingian sources and her arguments sparkle with clarity and originality. For years she has, in words she uses for Einhard, "invited us into a Frankish world." Anyone interested in understanding that world in the ninth century should have Janet Nelson as a guide.
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Author:Sefton, David S.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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