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Dimwit! Charles the Simple and His Nickname

By Fraser McNair

Fraser is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of History. His thesis is entitled ‘The development of territorial principalities between the Loire and the Scheldt, 893-99’.

The Frankish king Charles the Simple (r. 898-923) does not have a posthumous reputation as the brightest king who ever reigned.The most famous episode with which he is associated is one in which he was flipped onto his backside by an insubordinate Viking, who was told to kiss Charles’ feet and did so by raising the foot to his mouth rather than by kneeling (the image above shows a typical later view of Charles the Simple, getting toppled out of his throne by canny Vikings). This story, first told about eighty years after Charles’ death, comes from the same milieu as produced his nickname, simplex, often translated ‘the simple’.

But is this fair? The Latin word simplex can also be translated as ‘straightforward’ or ‘guileless’. Some of the earliest historians of Charles do use the word in a way which has flattering overtones. The first person known to use the word to describe Charles, the monk Richer of Rheims, writing in the very early eleventh century, uses it as a simple adjective, not a nickname: ‘in character, [Charles was] good and straightforward.’ The eleventh century chronicle of the abbey of Saint-Bénigne in Dijon does use simplex as a by-name, but gives it connotations which go beyond good into holy: Charles ‘was called ‘the Simple’ because of the kindness of his soul; now he can rightly be called a saint.’ That seems to settle the issue, right? Charles was thought of as a good man, and we have been getting the wrong impression of what people thought of him ever since.

Except that other historians use other words. Contemporary with the chronicle of Saint-Bénigne in the eleventh century are other historians, whose views of Charles are rather less flattering. The earliest is Thietmar, bishop of Merseburg, who calls Charles ‘the Sot’, which he helpfully elaborates: ‘that is, the Stupid’. (Noticeably, Thietmar also says that the people called him this to mock him, which adds to the insult: the people are not supposed to make fun of the king!) At the same time in Burgundy, the historian Ralph Glaber refers to him as ‘Charles, nicknamed the Dullard’. The chronicle of Nantes, in Brittany, dismissively refers to him as Karolus Stultus: Charles the Idiot.

Perhaps most interesting is the Aquitanian chronicler Adhemar of Chabannes. Adhemar introduces Charles ‘the Foolish, or the Young’. However, for the rest of his brief account of Charles’ reign, Adhemar does not call him ‘the Foolish’, only ‘the Young’. That is, Adhemar does not seem to have an axe to grind about Charles. Instead, it seems that Adhemar had to recognise that other people were calling Charles not very bright, even if he did not have to call him ‘the Foolish’ throughout his history.

Was Charles a dimwit? That’s another question, and the answer is that he almost certainly wasn’t. Did those who came after him remember him as a dimwit? However many good meanings can be attached to the word simplex, the word itself was only part of a spectrum of insults which indicated that, yes, Charles was, in general, thought of as being simple.

 

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