The Paris Review

A Mother’s Ninth-Century Manual on How to Be a Man

Albert Edelfelt, Queen Blanche of Norway and Sweden with Prince (later King) Hacon, 1877.

Being a red-blooded, blue-blooded male in the Carolingian Empire was a risky business. Those who grew up in Western Europe during the eighth and ninth centuries were frequently exposed to extreme violence. One adolescent royal from the period was struck so hard in a play fight that, in the words of a contemporary account, his playmate’s sword “penetrated almost as far as the brain, reaching from his left temple to his right cheekbone.”

The only thing the Carolingians valued as much as ruthlessness on the battlefield was proficiency with Biblical text. William of Septimania appears to have had a thorough education in both. He was barely in his twenties when he seized control of Barcelona in 848, but he had already spent four years warring against the crown. The city had been the old stomping ground of his father, Bernard. Bernard was an important figure in the reign of Louis the Pious, the Carolingian emperor who ruled a great swathe of territory from what is now northern Spain to the Czech Republic. But in recent times Bernard had endured a spectacular fall, toppled by intrigue and machination that ended in his death and devastated his family. When still in his teens, William became determined to win the

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