Eric J. Goldberg. Struggle for Empire: Kingship and Conflict under Louis the German 817-876. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. XXI + 388 S. $47.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-3890-5.
Reviewed by Julie A. Hofmann (Department of History, Shenandoah University)
Published on H-German (May, 2007)
In this volume, Eric Goldberg walks the line between a straightforward biography of Louis the German and a broader study of his reign. Because so little has been written on this important but often underestimated ruler, Goldberg's book, a refined, expanded version of his doctoral thesis, would be welcome no matter what faults it might contain. When a book is as enjoyable to read as this volume, it also deserves praise. Goldberg's approach is clear and the style of his prose will capture the attentions of even a non-specialist audience. His knowledge of the sources and his willingness to incorporate a broad range of methodologies into his study provide a strong framework for the book without allowing it to fall victim to pedantic discussions.
Until fairly recently, Anglophone studies of the Carolingian Empire have tended to focus on the western Carolingians. Even those scholars who have extended the scope of their research east of the Rhine have often done so within the context of earlier Francophone studies, sometimes neglecting the wealth of German scholarship and the different approaches to Carolingian history taken by those scholars. Recent works by Matthew Innes, Hans Hummer, and Simon MacLean, among others, take into consideration not only these approaches, but have also begun to demonstrate that many aspects of Carolingian kingship and society east of the Rhine need to be seen in a different light than their western counterparts. Goldberg's study follows in this vein, and moves even further, incorporating recent archaeological and historical work on the Carolingians' Slavic rivals to the east.
The book itself is divided into three parts of three chapters each, with an introduction and epilogue. Each section and chapter has a compelling title that draws in the reader and gives some idea as to the material within, creating a recognizable theme for successive chronological periods in Louis the German's life. The first section, "Winning a Kingdom," charts the career of the young Louis to the Treaty of Verdun. From the beginning, Goldberg argues, Louis' career was in many ways a conscious emulation of his grandfather's achievements. His actions represented a concerted effort to attain a similarly lofty position, such as following in his footsteps as head of a unified Carolingian Empire. Goldberg sees evidence of this in the early political awareness attributed to Louis by Notker, and in Louis' clear attempts to strengthen his position not only among his Carolingian relatives, but also among the Udalriching and Welf relatives of his grandmother and wife, respectively. Louis tried to maintain strong alliances with these groups because they represented powerful magnate families and held strategically important territories that he needed access to in order to further his imperial ambitions. Louis had already planned to challenge his brothers for primacy in his father's affections and in inheritance. It is especially in the discussion of the quarrels and shifting alliances between the Louis the Pious, his sons, and their loyal (and occasionally disloyal) followers that Goldberg brings his subject alive. The intrigues and quarrels take on a dramatic quality that pulls the best from the sources. What does not always stand out, however, are the marked differences between Louis the German's plots and those of his brothers, especially his older brother, Lothar, who clearly was ambitious enough to want to keep his claims to his father's imperial title intact and to increase the lands under his rule.
The focus shifts to Louis' policies in his own kingdom in the second section, "King in East Francia." The three chapters that make up this section are arguably the strongest in the book and offer the best examples of Goldberg's use of different types of sources to construct a comprehensive picture of Louis the German's style of rule. The first chapter, "Frontier Wars, 844-852," is especially useful in its discussion of Louis' Slavic neighbors and rivals and includes a serious assessment of the military and political threats posed by their leaders. Goldberg lucidly traces Louis' use of his magnates, especially in their military roles, by carefully balancing grants of lands and honores to keep them happy and loyal. That these magnates included many important clergy is unsurprising; however, Goldberg also shows that the ways in which Louis used his ecclesiastical allies in both his administration and his military may have been more extensive than was the case for his father and brothers. We see this tendency especially in Louis' employment of his own daughters, whom he installed as abbesses at monasteries in strategically important locations. What is apparent from this discussion, and perhaps even more important than any imperial ambitions he held, is that Louis was an able administrator who relied very heavily on his trusted men, even as he carefully played them against each other and generally limited their power.
Goldberg's thesis hinges primarily on the evidence presented in the book's final section, "Visions of Empire." Here, he describes "the growing tension between Louis's imperialist ambitions in Francia, competition with Charles the Bald, and campaigns against rebel Slavs [that] were to define the last two decades of his reign" (p. 234). His descriptions of the aging Louis and his relationship with his sons seem to parallel the tensions and conspiracies we saw in the discussion of Louis the Pious' relationship with his sons. In fact, parallels between the situations of Louis the Pious and Louis the German, at least as Goldberg presents them, seem much stronger than any differences that might have stemmed from Louis the German's "imperialist ambitions." In this context, it is far easier to read the evidence as supporting continuing efforts by all of the Carolingian kings from the time of Louis the Pious onwards to increase their regna at the expense of their fathers, brothers, and cousins. Where Goldberg seems to see the difference is in the "imperial language" used by Louis the German in his own capitularies and in his continued efforts to expand his control over territories west of his own kingdom.
That Louis had certain expansionist policies is clear from the evidence Goldberg musters and from some he does not. What is not always entirely clear is how these efforts were imperial rather than simply typical of Carolingian--or indeed, later Merovingian--regnal strategies. For example, Goldberg makes it entirely clear that Louis the German planned to divide his own kingdom, however large it ended up, between his surviving sons. In a society where partible inheritance was still the norm, this strategy is hardly surprising. There is a certain dissonance to the argument, however, when we try to reconcile Louis' clear intent to divide his kingdom with Goldberg's thesis that Louis was trying to "revive" or "reunite" the Carolingian Empire--an empire that, after all, still existed and had an emperor in Lothar, and then in his son, Louis II. The thesis becomes yet more problematic when we realize that, by the last chapter, Louis the German is too old and too ill to fulfill his ambitions for himself; instead, Louis must hope for their fruition in the reign of Carloman.
Perhaps the most difficult type of historical writing is the biography. This is especially true where the historian has few, if any, sources that really tell us about what the subject thought or felt. We want to understand the subject as a person, yet sometimes we can only know that person's actions and not his motivations. In this volume, Eric Goldberg offers one possible, but not always entirely plausible, explanation for the career of Louis the German. From his childhood, Louis saw himself as the heir to a particular imperial vision, and as the head of the empire of that vision. Whether or not one accepts this premise is in some ways irrelevant to what Goldberg has managed to accomplish in his study. As a study of late Carolingian kingship and government, the book not only significantly adds to the body of knowledge in an increasingly important field, but also helps to set a higher standard of scholarship in that field.
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Julie A. Hofmann. Review of Goldberg, Eric J., Struggle for Empire: Kingship and Conflict under Louis the German 817-876.
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