What is a History Lecture for? Part II – Transcripts

In November 2018 I wrote a short blog about the impact of automatic recording on traditional long, one-hour History lectures. My argument was that recording changes the nature of the lecture from event/performance to resource/text, and that embracing this logic might mean changes in how historians ‘do’ lectures:

“It may be historians would be better off replacing them with 20-minute screencasts to be viewed in advance, and ‘flipping the lecture’. “

In many ways Covid has accelerated change already underway, and lectures are a good example of that. Most universities have opted for shorter, pre-recorded lectures, and these seem to be generally popular with students. It seems likely to me that some element of this will be retained in future.

Some students have also asked for transcripts of these lectures. For some historians this is going too far. But for me, this is an entirely reasonable and logical consequence of recording. It’s now a legal requirement in the UK for recorded lectures to be captioned, so lectures are now spoken texts, whether we choose to think of them like that or not.

Students will presumably increasingly quote lectures in their work verbatim, and understandably so. What if the automated captioning is inaccurate and leads a student astray in their work, lowering their grade in the process? The least we can do is to provide an accurate version of the wording of the texts that we have provided them with.

In short, recording and a fortiori captioning means the lecture is now a spoken textual resource, not an event or a performance. It may be that the wider implications and possibilities of this transformation in the nature of the lecture have yet to be fully appreciated. But I see no reason why educational professionals should be putting up unnecessary barriers to accessing the textual resources that we are creating. Transcripts are surely the future of the lecture.

Immune from all public exaction

This week I’ve been discussing the early medieval ‘state’ with my students, and chewing over the various complexities of the topic. Was early medieval rulership too personalised to count as a proper state? Was it too undifferentiated from religious authority? Was it too broken up by alternative and rival jurisdictions?

Here’s a charter (pdf) issued by King Lothar II in 856 which illustrates the issues at stake. In it, King Lothar II grants a kind of personal fiscal and legal immunity to a man named Winebert and his family. Winebert had given over all his property to the monastery of St Arnulf of Metz, but he remained a secure tenant on his lands, in exchange for paying the monks a modest three pennies worth of wax each year. In return, he now benefited from the ‘immunity’ of the monastery of St Arnulf.

So, in this charter Lothar confirmed that neither Winebert nor his family could now be summoned to military service, or pay the stofa (a mysterious, and presumably irregular, tax). No public agent or royal missus could make public demands of Winebert, his family, or their heirs, at all. Winebert had privatised himself and his family, so to speak.

The charter gives us a precious indication of the sorts of claims that kings such as Lothar II could make of their free subjects. But for previous generations of historians, this kind of action weakened the ‘state’; through this document, King Lothar was surrendering his authority and diminishing his revenues.

But Barbara Rosenwein has taught us to be more subtle about immunity charters such as this. These grants had their costs, but they also brought kings benefits. After all, the monastery of St Arnulf was a family mausoleum for the young king, where his grandfather was buried. Helping this monastery boosted royal prestige and credibility at a time when Lothar needed both. Foregoing whatever Winebert might have given the king’s agents was a price worth paying for that.

As the UK government announces a new generation of spatial zones subject to special taxation and regulation arrangements, known as freeports, this point might become easier to grasp.[1] Freeports are supposed to generate economic capital, not the spiritual capital created by Carolingian immunities, but both are and were intended to feed directly into politics. Now that we see how the modern UK government is deliberately surrendering powers – in part in order to raise tangible revenue, but perhaps in part to demonstrate sovereignty through the very act of renunciation – might the power games of Carolingian kings around immunities no longer seem so strange?

[1] See forthcoming work by Chloe Fyfe.

How a monk blew up a Carolingian kingdom

In April 862, King Lothar II held a council at Aachen to seal his divorce with Queen Theutberga, on the grounds of her previous incestuous relationship with her brother, Hubert, which he argued made her incapable of marriage. But in June 863, the council of Metz instead seems to have justified the divorce on the grounds that Lothar had previously been married to Waldrada. Why had the justification changed? Why the tactical swerve?

The treatise provided here in a draft English translation for the first time gives us a clue. With great erudition, it mercilessly – we might say forensically – takes apart the 862 arguments for Lothar’s divorce. Fornication or adultery could be cause for separation, but never remarriage; and any sins committed by either partner before a marriage were not carried into it, provided they had been repented for. If a woman was chaste – ie, faithful to her husband – within a marriage, then her past no longer mattered, no matter how ‘polluted’ it was. Just because a woman had previously committed incest, that did not mean that a subsequent marriage was incestuous.

The treatise seems to have been written in response to the 862 Aachen council. Very likely its author was Ratramnus of Corbie, a brilliant monk-scholar. And after this treatise was received, Lothar’s advisors had to change tack. Their new argument, that a pre-existing marriage invalidated a subsequent one, was far stronger, but it was also unconvincing in being raised so belatedly. No wonder that Pope Nicholas I didn’t buy it, with all the consequences that flowed from there.

The title of this blog is perhaps somewhat hyperbolic. But it seems probable that Ratramnus’s superb handling of patristic commentaries, canon law and biblical passages brought home to Lothar’s court that their previous arguments were going nowhere: and the desperate U-turn in their position that ensued surely left Lothar’s kingdom, and his kingship, more vulnerable. Flip-flops are never a good political look.

But the treatise is also significant in its own right. It’s one of the most synthetic and developed commentaries on marriage from the Carolingian period (alongside Hincmar’s De Divortio, of course), and notable in particular for its depiction of marriage as representing a ‘fresh start’ for even the most sinful spouse, and for its emphasis on equality of treatment for both husband and wife. It’s an interesting example of how politics and intellectual enquiry fed off one another in Carolingian Francia.

TRANSLATION (opens pdf)

The tolls of Koblenz

Tariffs and tolls are back in the news, as some people in the UK find themselves paying customs duties they hadn’t expected. This blog presents an English translation of one of the earliest medieval lists of tolls, levied at the river port of Koblenz in Germany, where the Moselle flows into the Rhine.

The document, whose earliest surviving copy was written in the eleventh century, describes how much traders from different towns (see the map above for their location) had to pay when they sailed through Koblenz. Some of the traders paid tolls in kind, in metalwork, goat-skins, herring, swords, etc – presumably the cargo on their boats. Other traders – including slave traders – paid in cash only.

The document flashes a light on the eleventh-century Rhineland trading network that connected the North Sea to Swabia and Bavaria. Perhaps the same traders from Huy and Liege also sailed their boats to London, where they are mentioned in a roughly contemporary document recently studied by Rory Naismith.

The Koblenz toll tariff raises a great many questions. Were these tolls charged for boats travelling in both directions? How was the system policed? How were records kept of which traders had paid? How much money did it raise? Did the traders find it difficult or easy to pay this much? What was the reason for the differentials: in other words, why did traders from Metz have to pay twice as much as those from nearby Trier? How did the traders prove where they were from? How far were they going? Where were the enslaved people brought by Jewish traders coming from, and where were they being taken to? How old were these tolls, and on whose authority were they established, and how old were the trading routes? Were similar charges being levied at other ports on the Rhine?

These questions cannot be answered here, but hopefully a translation will encourage more people to reflect on this remarkable document from 11th-century Germany.


A prayer for driving away a storm

Here’s a draft translation of a prayer for driving away a storm (or a ‘Wettersegen’ in German), from a tenth-century manuscript, Munich clm 6426, which a recent catalogue has described as the ‘pastoral handbook’ of Bishop Abraham of Freising (d. 994).

This prayer may be intended for recitation by a local priest, and if so it offers a rare insight into religious practice at the local level. Of particular interest are the selection of biblical passages, the combination of Old and New Testament figures and the reference to the demon Mermeunt.

For more details about the manuscript, see Anna Dorofeeva, ‘Reading early medieval miscellanies’, in Scribes and the Presentation of Texts, ed. C.W. Dutschke and B.A. Shailor, Bibliologia (Brepols, forthcoming in 2021). This draft English translation is based on Anna’s careful transcription of the Latin. An edition by Adolf Franz is also available, online, though the base text is from a different manuscript.


First a litany.
Kyrie Eleison, three times.
Christe Eleison, three times.
Christ, hear us, three times.
Holy Mary, pray for us.
Holy Michael, pray for us.
Holy Gabriel, pray for us.
Holy Raphael, pray for us.
Holy Matthew, pray for us.
Holy Isaiah, pray for us.
Holy Mark and holy Jeremiah, pray for us.
Holy Luke and holy Ezekiel, pray for us.
Holy John and holy Daniel, pray for us.
All the saints, pray for us.
Three times: may the cross of Christ be a cool refuge for us.
May the cross of Christ be an aid for us.
May the cross of Christ be always our salvation.
O cross of Christ which we always venerate, may you deign always to be with us against all our enemies.
Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

Our Father.
I spoke, O Lord, have mercy upon me.
Be our aid in the Lord’s name.
O Lord, hear my prayer.
Have mercy on me O Lord according to your glory.
Save your people O Lord, and bless them.
May the Lord keep us from all harm and preserve us in all goodness, and lead us to eternal life.
O Lord, hear my prayer. 
Rise up O Lord and help us.
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, who through the great power of prayer and his raised right arm bound you, o devil, and redeemed the whole world from you, and cast you down, o most impious satan, into the depths of the abyss: may he through his power and raised right arm keep your ministers in confusion. Through him I adjure you, that in this place and this parish you are not able to do harm or injure through evil waters or through ice or through storm or through murmured incantation. Depart this place of God and of his ministers and this sanctuary of God. 

When the 11 disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ went out to the sea and boarded a boat, the devils came together and raised up the wind and gales of the sea and a strong storm against them. Then the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ were saddened, afraid that they would drown in the waves. They prayed to the Lord with one voice, ‘Save us Christ our teacher, save us son of the living God, restrain the devil and this wind’, and so forth. Then the prayer of the disciples was heard, and the Lord approached them on the boat, and the disciples saw him walking on the water. And when they recognised that he was the Lord, they were overjoyed with a very great joy, and at once a great calm came over the waters. 

I adjure you, angels of Satan, through the Lord of heaven and earth, through Him who first shaped Adam the first man in the beginning, through him who saved Noah in the Flood, I adjure you through him who saved Ananias and Azaria and Misael in the fiery furnace, I adjure you through Him who led the sons of Israel through the Red Sea by means of His servant Moses, I adjure you through Him who redeemed the whole world through His precious blood, that you shall not be able to come and do harm to this place and this parish, neither through a storm nor through evil waters nor through any lightning nor through any other means. 

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ who will come to judge the living and the dead and you, the enemy, through fire. I mark you, clouds of Christ, in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. I mark you. Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.

Sing the whole of Psalm 147. 
The Our Father and the creed. 
Holy God, holy and powerful, holy and immortal, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us, You who reign in all eternity.

Another prayer against a storm.
Remember O Lord God what you swore to our fathers, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob on Mount Sinai, that you would turn your anger away from these lands.
We command you, all the angels of hell, that you may hold back your rainfall for the calm waters where the Saviour was baptised, and where the holy Mary mother of the Lord carried him in her shining womb. I order and I command you not to throw the stones of your tempest within these boundaries but send them into dry and deserted places. So that on the Day of Judgement you cannot say that it was not forbidden to you. And I forbid it to you through Him who descended a thousand feet into the Red Sea. Aios Aios Aios Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani. This means: My God, why have you forsaken me? Jesus Christ who hung in Golgotha, tell the angel striking with the sword to hold back his hand over these fields, and let the anger which has gathered upon this city or this region cease. 

I adjure you, Mermeunt, who is in charge of this storm. I adjure you through the name of Him who in the beginning made heaven and earth, and established everything in the foundations of his power, that you shall not permit the storm to pass this boundary. I adjure you, Mermeunt, through the right hand of Him who formed Adam the first man in His own image, that you shall not permit the storm to pass this boundary. I adjure you, Mermeunt, through Jesus Christ our Lord, the only son of God, who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, whose feet walked upon the sea and who commanded the blowing winds, who gave light to the eyes of the blind, and who called Lazarus forth from the tomb after four days, that you shall not permit the storm to pass this boundary, in these: Ager, Alsrarius, Tuthos, Tuthones, Seruc, Celuc, Lacam. *

When Jesus climbed aboard the boat, the disciples followed him. And behold, the sea was greatly disturbed, and the boat was struggling in the waves, while he slept. And they approached him and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us from these dangers’. And he said to them, ‘What are you afraid of, you of little faith?’ Then he stood up and commanded the winds and the sea, and a great calm descended. At once the men were astonished, and said ‘Who is this, whom the winds and sea obey?’

* It is unclear whether these are local place names, as used to be thought, or names of different parts of heaven, as has recently been suggested.

Early medieval regime change

It’s sometimes suggested that the driving force behind King Lothar II’s efforts to divorce Theutberga was a desire to secure his succession. Lothar had no children with Theutberga, but several with his would-be queen Waldrada. But whatever Lothar’s motives had been in 857/8, the spiralling crisis of his kingdom in the 860s meant that any long-term concerns about his succession were overtaken by a more urgent problem, that of securing his political (and perhaps personal) survival. Lothar’s ‘solution’ to his marital problems was threatening his kingship in the here and now.

The best evidence for this is a letter written in the name of Lothar’s bishops and addressed to the bishops of Lothar’s uncle, King Charles the Bald (translated into English for the first time below). The letter speaks frankly. Lothar’s bishops state they have heard that unnamed people in Charles’s kingdom are advising him to depose his nephew. They call on their western colleagues to oppose this policy, out of episcopal solidarity but also because contrary to the rumours, Lothar’s kingdom was standing rock-solid behind him. The bishops declare that they have sworn oaths to Lothar which they have no intention of breaking; they admit that he has sinned in the past, but are now confident that he’s back on the right path.

Was Charles the Bald really considering instigating regime change? It is perfectly plausible. After all, Charles himself had nearly been deposed by his brother Louis ‘the German’ a decade or so earlier in 858, who had led an army into West Francia on the grounds that Charles was unfit to be king. Such an accusation could obviously be made against Lothar, thanks to the divorce ‘scandal’ which Lothar himself had initiated. And Uncle Charles was undoubtedly ambitious. The key factor was whether Lothar’s kingdom was divided. Would elements of Lothar’s followers welcome a new ruler, as elements of Charles’s followers had welcomed Louis the German in 858? This question explains the bishops’ insistence on their unity in the letter.

Of course we should be wary of taking this letter at face value. To begin with, the letter is not signed, so we do not know how many bishops were really standing behind Lothar. In fact, we do not even know that the letter was actually sent. It survives as part of the letter collection of Bishop Adventius of Metz, who might have been the text’s author; but we do not know whether the draft was discussed, let alone agreed and dispatched.[1]

Yet it suggests that (at least one of) Lothar’s bishops in the 860s – the letter sadly cannot be precisely dated – were becoming anxious not about the indeterminate future, but about the political present. The rapidity with which Charles the Bald invaded Lothar’s kingdom on his nephew’s death in 869 has led some historians to wonder whether Charles had not pre-arranged a military assault, suggesting that the letter’s fears were not groundless.

One of the things that attracts me to studying (and teaching) Lothar and Theutberga’s divorce case is how much it has to tell us about the political order constructed by the Carolingian rulers, as it continued to evolve after the Treaty of Verdun in 843. The Carolingian dynasty’s grip on power was unchallenged in the 860s, but paradoxically that could be a problem for individual kings. If any Carolingian king would do, and yours was struggling, why not trade up for a better one? And if that was the way the wind was blowing, might it not be better to change tack early? One suspects that this prospect brought sleepness nights for Lothar, wriggling like a fish on the line he’d cast.

Letter of the bishops of King Lothar to the bishops of King Charles, late 860s (opens PDF)

Image: Stuttgart Psalter

For blog posts relating to King Lothar II and Queen Theutberga, see http://turbulentpriests.group.shef.ac.uk/category/hst-3154/

For a list of translations available on this blog, see http://turbulentpriests.group.shef.ac.uk/translations/

[1] On the letter collection, see Charles West, ‘Knowledge of the past and the judgement of history in tenth-century Trier: Regino of Prüm and the lost manuscript of Bishop Adventius of Metz’, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/emed.12138

Secret archives in ninth-century Francia

In January 867, Pope Nicholas I wrote to Charles the Bald, king of West Francia. His letter (translated below) was on the topic of Lothar II and Theutberga’s divorce, which by this point had been running for nearly a decade. He had heard, he said, alarming rumours that Charles was now preparing to connive with Lothar in (another) trial of Theutberga, leading potentially to a trial by battle and her execution. Charles had hitherto been a steadfast supporter of Theutberga, and Nicholas encouraged him to remain so.

Nicholas also wrote to emphasise that he was now in charge of the divorce case. Both parties, Lothar and Theutberga, had appealed to him as the judge, and since there was no greater judicial authority than the papacy, no further appeal was possible. Any future judicial action required his say-so. A duel in particular was out of the question, for this would be tempting God.

But Pope Nicholas had another purpose in writing beyond these grand assertions of papal authority. He also hoped to use Charles as a means of getting his letters into Lothar’s kingdom. And this post was intended to be recorded delivery. He asked Charles not only to pass on a letter he had written to Lothar II’s bishops, but also to take note of which bishops refused to receive it, and to send their names back to him immediately. Nicholas was evidently having difficulty in telling which of Lothar’s bishops, thousands of miles across the Alps, were innocently out of the loop, and which were deliberately keeping themselves uninformed of the pope’s wishes.  The disjuncture here between papal aspiration and papal capacity is palpable.

And there was more. Nicholas also enclosed a letter for the attention of Lothar II himself, which he asked Charles to send on to his nephew. But in an appendix, he also asked Charles to keep a copy of it, secretly (nemine alio sciente). Charles was only to publicise this letter if Lothar delayed in obeying its instructions.

This might make the reader pause. Why did Nicholas insist on secrecy? Was Lothar II really not supposed to know that his uncle had a copy of the letter – a letter which this uncle had just passed on to him? If the aim was to put Lothar under pressure, why not just disseminate the letter immediately? And why mention this secret plan in a written document, which was likely to be read by numerous people besides Charles?

The solution to this conundrum, it seems to me, is in the binding power of shared secrets. Nicholas was trying to win Charles round, and by creating a secret, and sharing it with Charles, he hoped to strengthen their entente, and to exclude Lothar. It seems to me likely that Lothar was supposed to know that Charles had a ‘secret’ copy of the letter, and that this secret was intended to weaken the trust between the two kings. The preservation of Lothar’s letter in a West Frankish manuscript context (Paris Bnf. lat. 1557, sadly not yet digitised) suggests Charles did as he was asked.

As Stuart Airlie and Abigail Firey have both remarked, secrecy is a thread running through the divorce case – Theutberga’s secret sin, her secret confession, the anonymity of the group who contacted Hincmar. It seems that not even the pope was immune from falling into its conspiratorial orbit.

Translation of Pope Nicholas’s letter (opens PDF).

A note on Pope Nicholas’s letters available in translation
A selection of Pope Nicholas’s letters concerning the divorce have been translated, some in full and some in part by David D’Avray, Dissolving royal marriages: a documentary history. Another set have recently been translated into German by Klaus Herbers and Veronika Unger in Papstbriefe des 9. Jahrhundert. Nicholas’s letter to Theutberga, written at the same time as this one (Jan 867), has been translated on the marvellous Epistola website. This particular letter to Charles is not in either selection, and has not been translated before to my knowledge.

Image: Stuttgart Psalter

‘Giving for the sake of the good’: the defence of simony and intellectual plurality in eleventh-century Europe

Here’s a ‘research postcard’ hastily written amidst the turmoils of term – some early reflections on a topic I’m hoping to work on more in future, prompted by the opportunity to present at a department seminar on the theme of intellectual plurality.

Eleventh-century Europe was not short of big issues, but one of the biggest of the lot was simony. That’s the term given to the illicit purchase of ecclesiastical office, i.e. paying to become a priest or a bishop, or conversely selling the roles. The involvement of money in advancement became a hot topic in the church centuries before it was considered controversial in secular contexts, where state offices were openly and unproblematically trafficked into the early modern period. And the eleventh century played a special role in this development. Though simony was an old concept, it wasn’t until the eleventh century that the noun itself, “simony”, named after Simon Magus in the bible, was coined. That makes the eleventh century a pivotal period in the deep history of European corruption.

In the abundant eleventh-century arguments about simony, it can be hard to find traces of intellectual pluralism. There were plenty of debates, but they mostly concerned the consequences of simony rather than its nature: these were debates about just how bad simony was, not debates about whether it was actually bad. We do have some reported defences of simony and simoniac practices, but these defences are almost always embedded within criticism of the practice: critics imagining how wicked simoniacs might defend themselves, for instance by sneakily distinguishing between the office and the revenues that came with the office, before the critics go on to demolish these flimsy arguments with ease and panache.[1]

In a way, this makes the eleventh-century simony crisis hard to explain. If everyone agreed simony was wrong, why was it so commonly practised, and so hard to eradicate? There are lots of answers to this, but one is double-think. Corruption is after all famously subjective in all its forms. My little token of appreciation is your underhand bribe; my hint that you might show some gratitude for my help is your shameless extortion. As we all know from experience, it’s perfectly possible for people to employ double standards – to keep doing something that we would loudly condemn if we saw others doing it.

But was that all there was to it? Another potential explanation is suggested by one text – and only one. It survives in just a single manuscript, kept in the library established by Nicholas of Cusa in the tiny town of Kues in Germany, where it’s shelved as Codex Cusanus 52. The text itself is written on a single fragile parchment leaf which was originally an independent sheet, only later bound into this manuscript.[2] This is a work that is preserved by the skin of its teeth. And it is unique in apparently representing a genuine and sincere argument made in favour of simony: in favour, in other words, of paying for clerical office.

The treatise, perhaps intended as a sermon, was written by an educated cleric, maybe around the 1080s, and the surviving copy is not much later, depending on how one assesses the palaeography (see helpful comments from Twitterstorians here, with a broad consensus on c. 1100 – possibly earlier, maybe Italian). I won’t rehearse all the treatise’s arguments now; it’s enough to say that its basic emphasis is on intention. It’s not bad to pay for office if it’s done for good reasons: for instance, to stop someone really terrible from taking the post instead, or to give something back to the church in return for all the revenues that one receives as a consequence of promotion. As the text says, ‘Perhaps foolishly, we think that it is possible to give money for consecration without blame’ (…pro consecratione interdum pecuniam sine culpa dari posse forsitan stulte putamus). And it illustrates this point with an analogy. To defend a flock of sheep from wolves, one needs a staff or a stick: what does it matter exactly how one acquires the stick, provided one intends to use it well, and to keep the wolves away from Christ’s sheep? A stick that you’ve paid money for hurts the wolf just as much. In short (to quote the treatise), “To give for the sake of good is always good’ (dare causa boni semper bonum sit).

So, what to make of this unique text? Although it was edited in 1905 by Siegmund Hellmann, it’s been little studied (probably because it wasn’t included in the main body of simony materials which had been published a decade earlier); indeed it still doesn’t have a generally acknowledged name or title. Is it an intellectual exercise, an early example of the kinds of scholastic practice arguments designed to improve scholars’ logic and rhetoric – in other words, not to be taken at face value? Or does it rather suggest that serious arguments in defence of simony were sometimes made, even if they have been obscured by archiving pressures, which tended over time to weed out works making uncomfortable arguments? (along similar lines to works by people later judged heretical, which stood fairly little chance of being preserved, at least from this distant period).

I need to do more work on this. But at the moment, I’d incline towards the latter interpretation, because it helps explain the tenacity of simony. As Roman Deutinger suggests, we can understand better why simony was so difficult to eliminate if there were people resisting the wave of condemnation, in reasonably sophisticated ways, even if their line of argument did not in the end carry the day. In other words, perhaps simony’s persistence was not just the product of double-think or double-standards, or of the challenge of shifting economic realities, but of genuine intellectual plurality, even though that diversity of views has now become very hard to hear amidst the din of the polemics that triumphed.

By implication, I’d argue the treatise suggests that the eventual hegemony of now common-place assumptions about corruption and office in the European context was contingent. The acceptance that paying for office is unacceptable, which eventually crept into secular life too, wasn’t inevitable or pre-ordained, but the result of arguments and debate. Perhaps we didn’t need to read an eleventh-century treatise to realise that, but it’s good to be reminded.

[1] The best analysis of these defences is Roman Deutinger, ‘Simonisten rechtfertigen sich: mittelalterliche Antworten auf den Vorwurf der Simonie’, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 120:2 (2009 ), pp. 145-159. I am grateful to Herr Deutinger for sharing his article.

[2] Codex Cusanus 52 (Kues). On the manuscript, see Becker, Benediktinerabtei St. Eucharius, who associates the ms with St Eucharius of Trier (though without discussing this particular inserted page).

CSI Carantania

A post by Rachel Stone

At some point in the mid-ninth century an auxiliary bishop called Osbald had a serious problem with a turbulent priest in Carantania (later the duchy of Carinthia in southern Austria and northern Slovenia). Osbald was told to investigate whether or not this priest was responsible for the death of a deacon. We don’t know the outcome, but a look now at this very, very cold case is revealing about justice and clerics in the early Middle Ages.

All we know about this case comes from part of a letter by Pope Nicholas I (which dates it to 858-867). The original letter does not survive, but an excerpt from it is included in later canon law collections. That means that we don’t know why Osbald had probably written directly to the Pope rather than to his superior, the Archbishop of Salzburg. Osbald, whose name suggests Anglo-Saxon origins, was a chorbishop, an additional subordinate bishop helping to administer the vast diocese of Salzburg. (As an indication of its size, the later suffragan diocese covering Carantania/Carinthia had its first seat at Gurk, 120 miles away from Salzburg).

Pope Nicholas’ reply, however, demanded the involvement not only of the far-off Archbishop of Salzburg, but a considerably wider group of ecclesiastics. Here’s the first part of the surviving text:

Let your sanctity apply yourself to persuading your bishop to unite together with himself the canonical number of colleagues, that is six brothers and fellow-bishops from neighbouring provinces, and with them deciding, joined to you, diligently apply yourselves to investigating and take care to examine carefully, with all striving, in order that you able to find whether the same deacon, who it is reported has died, died from beating/striking (percussio) by the priest named now [elsewhere in the letter] or from breaking his neck.

This had now turned into a complex detective and legal operation, which probably also involved some difficult logistics. So why had Osbald got the Pope involved in the first place and why was all this investigation needed to work out the deacon’s cause of death? Hints of an answer come in the next section of Nicholas’ letter:

And if indeed he was not beaten to death (ad mortem percussus est) by the aforementioned priest, but falling from his horse, died from a broken neck, according to your judgement announce a corresponding penance for the priest beating/striking recklessly: and let him be suspended for some time from the solemnities of mass. After this he should once more be returned to priestly office.

But if that deacon truly died from whatever beating/striking by that priest, we decree that this one is for no reason to minister in a priestly way, since even if he did not have the wish to kill, yet the fury and indignation by which a motion [of his] produced those deadly things, are to curbed in many ways in everyone, but especially in God’s ministers, and to be condemned everywhere.

This suggests that the case may have involved what modern lawyers would describe as a chain of causation. The question may have been not simply whether the deacon had died from falling off his horse, but whether the priest’s attack had led to that fall in some way. Many possible scenarios can be imagined here (and imagination is all we can go on, given the lack of detail). Had the deacon already been on horseback when a blow had disrupted his control of his horse? Had he jumped on a horse (perhaps not his own) and ridden away hastily to escape further violence from the priest?

Or had the priest’s attack happened at some earlier point, leaving the deacon suffering longer-term ill effects, perhaps via the aftereffects of concussion or even brain damage? As a possible parallel, in 864, Charles, the son of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald was struck in the head with a sword by a friend during some horseplay. He suffered from fits as a result and died a year later (Annales Bertiniani, 864, 865). The verb used to describe Charles’ injuring (percutio) is the same one used for the priest’s attack on the deacon; it’s not therefore possible to be sure whether the priest had inflicted a single blow or a sustained beating.

It’s unlikely that Osbald and the other bishops were able to investigate the case thoroughly and discover the truth, in the way that Nicholas wanted. Even if there had been witnesses to the attack, it would have been extremely difficult to get them to Salzburg, the most likely place for any episcopal judgement to take place. And without witnesses or forensic evidence, the only testimony available would have been from the priest himself. Dead deacons tell no tales.

Our modern categories of criminal law/civil law/church law or law as against penance are inadequate for describing this case. We don’t know whether the priest had paid wergild for the deacon’s death or not. There’s no mention of it in the portion of the letter that survives, but any such act wouldn’t necessarily have decided the issue for church leaders. What both Pope Nicholas and Osbald were concerned about was a complex blend of the subjective issues of the priest’s intentions and motivation and the objective effects of his acts, concerns common to many different legal and penitential systems.

But there’s a final twist to this story that takes it beyond purely legal courts and penitential judgements. Nicholas ends the surviving section of the letter with a judgement on a slightly different aspect:

But if indeed the priest should perhaps make clear to Your Zealousness that he is guilty (noxius), we order that such a benefice should be conceded by his church to him, from which he and his (et ipse et sui) may be able to have enough compensation for their maintenance.

This looks at first sight like some incongruous form of plea-bargaining: why should a guilty man be rewarded? One canonical collection has the priest making clear that he is obnoxius (which could mean either “guilty” or “submissive/compliant”). The original editor, however, preferred noxius and I think he’s right.

It’s instructive here to bring in a second letter that Nicholas sent in response to another question from Osbald. This question was whether clerics who had killed a pagan in self-defence should be allowed to remain in their current grade or advance to a higher one. Nicholas’ response was firmly worded. He gave no-one licence to kill and he allowed no “soldier of Christ” (miles Christi) to defend himself other than the way Christ had defended himself, i.e. no resistance was allowed. If a cleric of the rank of priest or above should kill a pagan, the Pope advised him to consider giving up his office, rather than risking his soul. (It is interesting that Nicholas advises this but does not specifically decree it as a canon that must be followed).

Carantania was on the edge of east Francia; it was a region where potentially dangerous pagans might well be found. It was also a region undergoing missionary activity throughout the ninth century, carried out by missions that were sometimes rivals: operations subject to the Catholic dioceses of Salzburg and Passau and also slightly later efforts by the Byzantine missionaries SS. Cyril and Methodius. A text from the 870s called the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum stressed the rights of Salzburg and included a reference to Osbald’s earlier missionary work.

In this missionary context, we need to consider the existence of another “court”: the court of public opinion. Whatever the details of the priest’s attack on the deacon, he was hardly setting a good example for a barely Christianised population, any more than priests who had shed the blood of pagans even in self-defence were. Nicholas had harsh words for priests who had killed in self-defence, but he did not specifically attempt to remove them from office. The suspicion must be that the pope similarly hoped that Osbald might be able to “buy off” the angry priest from his office, whose scandalous behaviour might otherwise offend or deter new converts. It is possible that, as happened frequently in other regions, the priest was himself from a prominent local family. The passing reference made to the priest’s dependents might indicate a married man, but it might also indicate a priest rich enough to own unfree people personally.

This cold case may therefore end by revealing further injustice, but it reflects the realities of the period. Any attempt by the church authorities to deal with a badly-behaved “turbulent priest” in the early Middle Ages always had to consider whether more harm than good to the church’s reputation could result from a disciplinary process.


Text of Nicholas’ letter(s) from MGH Epistolae 6, pp. 660-661:

(Although they are treated as part of one letter (no. 142) in the MGH edition, the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum refers to two letters sent by Nicholas to Osbald, so I have regarded them as separate).

(1) Studeat sanctitas tua persuadere episcopo tuo sibi canonicum sociare numerum collegarum, id est sex ex vicinis provinciis fratres et coepiscopos suos; quibus tecum iunctis, et decernentibus diligenter investigare, et omni annisu scrutari procurate, quatinus invenire valeatis utrum percussione iam nominati presbyteri, an cervicis fractione idem diaconus, ut fertur, extinctus est.

Et si quidem a saepefato presbytero non ad mortem percussus est, sed ex equo cadens cervice fracta interiit, secundum arbitrium vestrum pro percussione incaute agenti presbytero paenitentiam competentem indicate, et aliquanto tempore a missarum solempniis suspendatur, denuo ad sacerdotale post haec rediturus officium.

Quodsi veraciter qualicumque percussione istius presbyteri ille mortuus est diaconus, nulla hunc ratione ministrare sacerdotis more decernimus, quoniam, etsi voluntatem occidendi non habuit, furor tamen et indignatio ex quibus motio illa mortifera prodiit, in omnibus, sed praecipue in Dei ministris multipliciter inhibentur, atque ubique dampnantur.

Verum si presbyter adeo vestro studio noxius forte claruerit, praecipimus, ut tale beneficium sibi ecclesiae suae concedatur, quo et ipse et sui sufficiens possint habere suae sustentationis solacium.

(2) De his clericis pro quibus consuluisti, scilicet qui se defendendo paganum occiderunt, si postea per paenitentiam emundati possint ad pristinum gradum redire aut ad altiorem ascendere, scito nos nullam occasionem dare, nec ullam tribuere licentiam eis quemlibet hominem quolibet modo occidendi.

Non igitur licentiam damus militibus Christi aliter se defendere quam ipse in se monstravit Christus, illis dumtaxat, qui clericatus funguntur officio quique familiarius in castris militantur eis, nec occidendi eis prorsus tribuimus facultatem. Verum si contigerit, et clericus sacerdotalis ordinis saltem paganum occiderit, multum sibi consulit, si ab officio sacerdotali recesserit, satiusque est, illi in hac vita Domino sub inferiori habitu inreprehensibiliter famulari, quam alte indebite appetendo dampnabiliter in profundum dimergi.  

“Is not every Christian emperor also a priest?”

Looking back from the twenty-first century, we naturally tend to arrange the past into different sections. The historians who work on late ninth-century Carolingian Francia, for instance, find themselves in a different field from those who work on the seventh-century Roman Empire. And understandably so, since the political and cultural set-up of these societies were quite distinct.

Often, however, medieval texts moved across time and space in ways that challenge these subdivisions, layering different histories upon one another. A good example is a work in Greek about the imperial trial in 655 of the firebrand monk Maximus the Confessor. This text, known as the Relatio Motionis, was written by sympathisers of Maximus, and it has some remarkably clear and unequivocal statements about the secular status of the emperor.

For instance, it records that Maximus was challenged with the question ‘Is not every Christian emperor also a priest?’. To this Maximus calmly explained that the answer was: ‘No, he is not. For he does not stand by the altar, nor does he lift up the bread after it has been sanctified, saying Holy of Holies. He does not baptize, nor does he create the chrism, nor does he make bishops or priests or deacons, nor anoint churches, nor does he carry the signs of priesthood, that is the pallium and the Gospels, although he does wear the signs of empire, the crown and the purple.’ So much for Caesaropapism.

Now, the Relatio Motionis is usually read as evidence for debates in seventh-century Byzantium, which it surely is. Yet the Greek account of Maximus’s trial was also translated into Latin in ninth-century Rome by a well-known cleric named Anastasius the Librarian. Moreover, the only surviving manuscript of this translation – Paris BnF. Lat. 5095 – was made not in Rome, but in ninth-century Francia.

This manuscript has usually been evaluated as useful evidence firstly for reconstructing Maximus’s original statements and secondly for understanding Anastasius’s translation campaign, but as always in medieval history, it’s worth looking at manuscripts and not just through them. In a recent article, I’ve argued that Paris 5095 was copied at the behest of Bishop Hincmar of Laon, who was interested in Maximus’s persecution by rulers, and how he handled it. Hincmar had been deposed as bishop by King Charles the Bald in 871, but did not gracefully accept his new circumstances and settle into retirement. Instead he fought against his deposition, accusing Charles the Bald of having acted tyrannically. I argued that the Paris 5095 manuscript, including the trial of Maximus the Confessor, was part of the bishop’s efforts to stage a come-back, which resulted in qualified success in 878.

In other words, a Latin translation made in Rome of a Greek text was being read with great interest in Francia in the 870s, as part of debates over the nature of Carolingian kingship and its relation to the church. To what extent can and should we therefore read the Latin Maximus as a Carolingian text, as well as a Roman and indeed Byzantine one?

For a fuller version of this argument (with references to further reading), see C. West, ‘”And how, if you are a Christian, can you hate the emperor?” Reading a Seventh-Century Scandal in Carolingian Francia’, in Karina Kellermann, Alheydis Plassmann and Christian Schwermann, eds., Criticising the Ruler in pre-modern societies – possibilities, chances and methods (Bonn, 2019), 411-430: open access version https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:27953/

A research project blog by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield)