Notger and his time

By Henri Dupuis

The thousandth anniversary of the death of Prince-Bishop Notger, the founder of the principality of Liège, is certainly deserving of an international conference. Not to take pleasure once again in a past history which has already been judged glorious, but to analyse and develop the most recent research concerning the public figure and the context surrounding the work of an empire builder. A specialist concerning Notger - on whom he is preparing a major work- and the history of the Principality in the Middle Ages, Jean-Louis Kupper, a co-organiser of the conference, retraces the major events of the person ‘to whom Liège owes everything’!

After Kurth, can we still discover new things concerning Notger?

The work of Godefroid Kurth, which is altogether remarkable and remains today the basis of any studies concerning Notger, is over a hundred years old. In over a hundred years, a lot of research has taken place, as well as the publication of documents which were unknown at the time of Kurth. Furthermore, the perspective of historians has changed, and new avenues of research have been explored. The image we have today of Notger is thus different to that we had of him at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.

It is thus that today that we can confirm that Notger was a monk, under the rule of Saint-Benoît. This is something rare enough to be noted because at the time most men who found themselves at the head of the bishoprics were generally canons, and thus members of the secular clergy. We also know that Notger came from the Bénédictine monastery of Saint-Gall, in Switzerland, at the time the Duchy of Souabe, then called the Duchy of Alemania (from which springs the name given today, Swiss Alemania). The Saint-Gall monastery was a very important intellectual centre, which perhaps allows us to understand the intellectual influence of Liège at the end of Notger’s episcopacy: he came from an intellectual background, was himself an intellectual, and understood the importance of a seat of learning and thinking.

 COVER Notger et Liège

Delville J-P., Kupper, J-L. and Laffineur M., Notger et Liège, Les Editions du Perron, 128 pages.

We also know that Notger was to come to the attention of the Arch-Bishop of Cologne, Brunon, even if we do not know the precise circumstances in which this happened. All the same, this Bishop was none other than the brother of Emperor Otto the First. On the death of Brunon, the clerics around him joined the court of Otto in what is called the Imperial Coterie. The latter was composed of palace clerics but quickly became a sort of college which trained the Empire’s executive officers, notably ecclesiastic dignitaries. Notger was thus at the time in contact with a whole series of the Empire’s important personalities, a number of whom were, like him, named at the head of bishoprics. He was thus weaving a relationship of networks which would serve him well in the future.

Eracle EN

How did he become the Bishop of Liège?

The Bishop of Liège, Eracle, died in 971. Notger attained the seat of the Liège bishop’s palace in the following year. There is absolutely no doubt that this nomination was desired by the Emperor Otto the First. Today we would call it an example of ‘parachuting.’ Why did this nomination take place? First of all because Notger seemed to have proved in the eyes of the Emperor that he had the required abilities. It is important to realise that at this time the Liège diocese found itself in a delicate and dangerous strategic situation. The diocese was a part of the Germanic kingdom but its incorporation within this political system was very recent because it had only taken place in the year 925. The local nobility was rebellious and not prepared to meekly accept the Emperor’s authority. This nobility was supported by the King of France. The latter was in fact a Carolingian and as a descendent of Charlemagne, he thus claimed our regions, the cradle of the dynasty along with the palace of Aachen. Notger thus found himself on a war footing. This was a particular situation which Kurth was not able to perceive properly. A great number of Notger’s achievements are directly connected to this fact: he was in a defensive situation, on the borders, on the outposts.


He becomes the Bishop, but not yet a Prince?

EN Notger Prière

We have to distinguish between the bishopric, the diocese on the one hand and the Principality on the other. The diocese was an ecclesiastical domain over which the Liège bishop exercised spiritual power. It was a vast territory: from North to South it stretched from the mouth of the Meuse and the Rhine to Semois and Bouillon, and from West to East from Louvain as far as Aachen. It was one of the largest bishoprics in Germania. Traditionally the bishop was also a great property owner. But Notger was to go further in creating the Principality. What is the difference? Since the time of Clovier the kingdom had been divided up into administrative districts called cantons, at the head of which were found counts. For a long time these counts were functionaries charged with managing the territory in the name of the King. They were appointed by the King and could thus also be deposed by the King. The positions were not hereditary but progressively, from the ninth century onwards, they made great efforts to make their positions hereditary, a task in which they finally succeeded. They thus became territorial princes whose power and riches increases at the same time as did their independence from the King. This phenomenon was very rapid in France, a bit slower in our regions. At the time Notger was appointed the Emperor had retained room for manoeuvre in terms of attributing the counties. The Emperor’s entourage then also had the idea to give vacant canton posts to bishops. The Emperor thus made the counts genuine territorial princes but without the fiefdoms being hereditary, because for a long time , at least in Germania, a bishop could not be married and could thus not have legitimate children. And he had to be priest even if sometimes he was only ordained into the priesthood a few days before ascending to the episcopacy! When he rose to the throne of Saint Lambert Notger did not yet have the powers of a count. The first canton that was given to him was that of Huy, in 985. The district was that whose centre was of course the town of Huy, but which also covered a part of Condroz, Hesbaye and Famenne… where the bishop had numerous domains. We thus need to distinguish between the diocese, property ownership and the Principality, where the bishop exercised the powers he had as a count. The three never coincided.

At the beginning it was thus a fragile and not very important principality!

Yes. It seems moreover that when he came to the throne, Notger was keen on transferring the seat of power from Liège, which was very poorly defended, towards Huy. Huy was in effect THE bishop’s fortress. There, he could be sure of protecting himself. But in the years that followed he received other cantons, notably

that of Hesbaye. The system did not just include the granting of powers but also the granting of lands each time it was possible. It was in this way that the principality was built up, and it was at the beginning made up of odds and ends, as were all the principalities at the time. The Prince carried out justice, rose up troops and built fortifications, and produced coins. The Liège bishop thus had similar powers to other bishops, such as the count of Namur, Luxemburg of Louvain, who later became the Duke of Brabant. But in addition he was the bishop and his moral and religious authority extended over a territory that extended further than the lands of the principality. Notger’s successors sometimes went further. In 1081, Henri du Verdun succeeded in the tour de force of persuading the other counts of the diocese to grant him responsibility for public order over the whole of the diocese. At this time there was some sort of match up between powers and lands. It was the system of the Peace and Truce of God that stipulated that it was forbidden to fight at certain times of the year, or to attack the belongings of the poor or of the church, etc. People were then likely to appear before the jurisdiction of the Peace and Truce of God. The bishop, who had responsibility for this system, thus exercised authority, diffuse but real, over the whole of the diocese. This demonstrates that in the mind of the bishop there was always this desire to make the borders of the diocese coincide with those of the Principality. But he would never succeed in this goal.Dessin Saint Denis

Notger nonetheless rapidly became an influential Prince?

In 987, two important events changed the situation: the last Carolingian French king dies and Hugues Capet succeeded him. It was the start of a new dynasty that of the Capetiens. In other words, French policy changed and the king no longer claimed our lands. The second event was Notger taking the fortress of Chèvremont, with the help of the Empress Théophano. It needs to be said that Otto the First died in 973, just after Notger rose to the episcopacy. His son, Otto the Second, died ten years later, in 983, leaving a son who was hardly three years old. It was thus the latter’s mother who would assume the Regency. Notger nonetheless held her in high esteem, this empress who would help him raze Chèvremont to the ground. In what ways did this fortress threaten Liège? Its master was a certain Charles, the Duke of Lotharingie (or of Lorraine), a rival of Hugues Capet for the French throne, himself supported by the Emperor and thus by Notger. Everything was connected. Notger without doubt created a ‘diversion’, maintaining a part of Charles of Lorraine’s troops at Chèvremont, in this way helping the first Capetien’s victory. From then on, the borders with France became more peaceful. Notger thus had the means to build construct vast stone fortifications around Liège, which was quite exceptional for the period. He also undertook a reconstruction policy, starting with the Saint Lambert cathedral. He then built new collegiate churches, including Saint-Martin, Saint-Paul, Sainte-Croix, and Saint-Denis. And his favourite collegiate church, Saint John the Evangelist, in which he asked to be entombed. In general all the medieval structure of the town was thus decided and set in place during his reign. These collegiate churches would serve as anchoring posts for peoples’ buildings, economic activities, parishes etc.

We have also discovered that Notger was greatly concerned with what we would today call foreign policy?
Beyond the Principality the Emperors developed an Italian policy which was more and more dynamic and tough. They still considered themselves as Roman emperors and thus they had to rule over Rome. Notger played an important role in this policy because we now know that throughout a good part of his reign he stayed in Italy, in Latium, to the south of Rome. It was a site for meeting and clashing with the Byzantine empire. There he was the representative of the Emperor, responsible for maintaining order, organising the justice system, in brief to establish imperial authority.

And as far as cultural matters go?

Here as well Liège owes him a great deal because he gave to the Liège schools an exceptional influence. This reputation was connected to his personal education and training in the Imperial Chapel. He recreated in Liège a similar ‘chapel’, thus wanting to grant Liège its own centre for educating and training bishops. We know in effect that a large number of clerics who attended the Liège schools later became bishops. In fact Notger was looking to control neighbouring episcopacies. At the time it was difficult to become the bishop of Cambrai or of Utrecht, for example, without his support.

Was the Principality’s economy flourishing?

monnaieOn this point the documentation is quite rare. But from Notger onwards, the bishops kept a constant grip on Hesbaye. It is an economic aspect that we have often neglected, but the Principality’s power also stemmed from its domination of this region because it was one of the richest in Europe. There were only two ‘lands of plenty’ in Europe, France, which made the fortune of the Capetiens, and Hesbaye, which granted power to the church and to Liège! As every other landowner, Notger and his successors knew where the best lands were to be found.

Towards the year 1000, the period also saw the birth of towns, the rebirth of urban life which had been considerably reduced since the fall of the Roman empire. The bishops benefited from a favourable position because they were - and it was not by chance - able to control the main towns of the Meuse which were economically important and in which the urban fabric showed itself very early: Dinant, Huy, Maastricht. Notger even had strong support in Namur, even if it was outside the Principality’s territory. The development of the urban economy in Liège seems to have taken place earlier than we had believed up until today: it had already started around 950, and not around 1050.

Was the independence of Liège real?

Notger was the master of his domain but he remained the Emperor’s loyal servant. This political system, based on the collusion of the bishop and his emperor is called the Imperial Church. It was born in Liège. It was Liège which was treated as a testing ground. It was probably due to the strong links that united Notger and the wife of Otto the Third, Théophano. When everything was put into place, the Emperor Otto the Third was but a child. The Empress was very young and of Byzantine origins. Her position was thus precarious because she was considered a foreigner or an outsider. She succeeded in rallying Notger to her camp. Liège was thus independent and powerful in her domain, in comparison with other cantons. But the Prince-Bishop remained the Emperor’s vassal and his power depended on the collusion that he kept up with him. This collusion lasted until 1200. From then on, the system crumbled as the Emperor’s authority diminished. The Liège bishop was thus isolated and he became a territorial prince like any other, even if he maintained spiritual power. As for independence in terms of the Pope, it was complete. It is important to realize that up until 1200 Papal authority was weak. Up until this period, in conforming to a tradition that dated back to the Roman Empire, the real master of the Church was the Emperor. The Church was a part of the State. It was very obvious under Charlemagne and the Frankish kings. The State controlled the Church and the Emperor named the bishops, or in any case guided the choices made. The principalities thus had genuine independence, even if some succeeded better than others. This was the case for Liège and Cologne. It is less true for Cambrai or Utrecht, which were nonetheless better endowed than Liège, but which were not able to keep its cantons. Independence is also often a question of strength of personality. And Liège could count on very strong personalities throughout the whole of the Middle Ages.