How did a hundred naked men in a bath help create a great empire? Historians have always been fascinated by royal courts and how the social bonds created there affect the wider world. We often hear about elaborate court rituals, but courts in the early medieval West (c 500-1000 CE) were not always orderly and peaceful places. The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf tells how the hero goes to the court of the Danish king Hrothgar and kills two monsters, Grendel and his mother, who have been terrorising Hrothgar and the band of warriors in his royal hall. But Grendel isn’t the only one in Denmark hostile to Beowulf. Beowulf is welcomed by Hrothgar, but Unferth, one of Hrothgar’s followers, resents any bolder warrior than himself:
Unferth made a speech, the son of Ecglaf,
who sat at the feet of the Scylding lord [Hrothgar],
he unbound his battle-rhyme. Beowulf’s mission,
the proud sea-crosser, chagrined him greatly,
because he begrudged that any other man
ever could care for greater glory in this middle-earth,
under the heavens than he himself
(Lines 499-505, Translation from Aaron K Hostetter, Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project)
After a hundred lines of boasting and trading insults, the quarrel between the two men ends, and Unferth later lends Beowulf his sword to fight against Grendel’s mother (lines 1455-1472). But perhaps it was as well for Unferth that Beowulf is later praised for being a man known for “never striking down his hearth-comrades in drunkenness” (lines 2177-2179).
Is this vision of quarrels between men at court that could easily turn violent merely the poet’s fantasy? Perhaps not, judging by an account from the Annals of St Vaast from about 900 CE, which recounts how the West Frankish ruler Charles the Simple and three of his leading men, Robert of Neustria, Richard the Justiciar and Herbert I of Vermandois were discussing how to deal with the Viking threat. Then, one day:
Manasses, one of Richard’s faithful men, speaking with the king, said something unsuitable about Robert. When this was reported to Robert, he mounted his horse and returned home. and thus they all, disagreeing, returned home without anything having been done [against the Vikings].
A longstanding rivalry between Richard and Robert could thus be brought to a head by a single insult from one of their supporters. Robert was so offended that he stayed away from Charles’ court for nearly three years.
Despite the differences between an Old English poem containing legends about sixth-century Scandinavia and a ninth-century historian writing in Latin about contemporary events, we can see clear parallels between touchy elite males, quick to respond decisively to insults or slights. Controlling a court full of such men cannot have been easy. It is easy to imagine male homosociality, friendly social bonds between two or more men, as a phenomenon that emerges spontaneously. But often such social bonds are deliberately created and it may take considerable work by those involved to maintain and institutionalise them in the desired form.
Male relationships in the early Middle Ages, for example, were often hierarchical, such as the ties between Richard the Justiciar and Manasses, or Charles the Simple and Robert of Neustria. But these were not simple matters of domination and obedience. Robert ended by rebelling against Charles the Simple and claiming the throne himself as Robert I. Men at all levels might need to be loved as well as feared by their subordinates: in 848 Archbishop Hrabanus of Mainz was reconciled with some of his own men, “who had been publicly convicted of conspiring against their lord“. Successful rulers had to make their courts welcoming enough to outsiders to attract and retain useful newcomers like Beowulf, without alienating their existing followers, like Unferth.
One ruler who was particularly successful at managing such social relationships was the Emperor Charlemagne, probably the greatest ruler in the early medieval west, whose Frankish kingdom ended as an empire reaching from Catalonia to Slovenia. We also know much more about his court than other early medieval ones, particularly from a biography written by Einhard, who had known Charlemagne personally.
For example, Einhard tells us that Charlemagne disapproved strongly of drunkenness, “especially in himself or his companions”. Is this just a moral trope, making Charlemagne an example of temperance? Or, combined with his legislating against feuds, is this an attempt to deal with the problems of warriors less restrained in their cups than Beowulf?
Einhard also describes a striking scene of male homosociality at the hot baths at Aachen, where Charlemagne established his main palace. Charlemagne, so Einhard says, “used to invite not only his sons to the bath, but also his leading men and friends and sometimes even a crowd of his attendants (satellites) and bodyguards, so that sometimes a hundred men or more bathed together.”
Such bathing presupposes some firm expectations of restrained behaviour. How were social distinctions to be maintained when everyone was stripped of their usual costumes and accoutrements? And what happened when, as seems likely in a space with over a hundred men in it, someone important got accidentally or deliberately jostled, splashed or dive-bombed? Charlemagne’s pool parties suggest a male elite that had been heavily socialised not to respond to potential insults to honour by their fellows.
But we shouldn’t overlook the negative side of this bathing-mediated homosociality. The reference to Charlemagne’s attendants and bodyguards reminds us of this. Part of this building of friendships and even the temporary breaking down of social barriers was to build bonds that would assist Charlemagne in one of his main activities: the near yearly campaigns he fought to extend or defend the Frankish empire. As Einhard himself reports, there was a Greek proverb: “If a Frank is your friend, he is clearly not your neighbour.” And he is happy to recount how in Charlemagne’s campaign against the Avars, almost the whole of the Avar nobility perished.
Peace and friendship between some Frankish men at Charlemagne’s court, helped by what looks like a calculated programme of homosociality, did not therefore imply any more generalised peace and friendship. Indeed, when we are considering male homosociality in any period, it is important to remember those men (as well as all the women), who are deliberately excluded from particular all-male groups, and who may all too often become the targets of their violence.
The Historical Locker Room explores homosociality – same sex social bonds – in historical context. Read the first article in this new feature: