Frankly speaking, can you kill your wife? Or, why typos cost lives.

In 860, an archbishop of Rheims called Hincmar was asked whether a king, Lothar II, could divorce his wife, Theutberga, and marry someone else. Hincmar wrote an extremely long treatise in reply, which Rachel Stone and I have been steadily translating for the last few years for Manchester University Press, that dealt with all the aspects of the case.  Amongst these was a hint from the king that if the answer was no, then he might choose what we would call the ‘Henry VIII solution’ – have Theutberga executed, then remarry.

Hincmar tackled this hint by quoting St Augustine of Hippo.  The law of the Roman Empire and of the Old Testament both permitted a husband to execute his adulterous wife, while Christian morals taught that a husband could not marry again while his wife was still alive.  It would obviously be best for him neither to kill his wife nor to marry again while she was alive: but if necessary, he should do what was permitted, which was execution. If he didn’t, then he could not remarry.

That all seems perfectly clear. The only problem is that this isn’t quite what Augustine said. Augustine thought in paragraphs, not sentences, and Hincmar slyly ended his quotation before Augustine had concluded that in fact, it would be better to marry again than to spill blood, no matter what the law said (see below for the full Augustine text).

What’s more, in the bit that Hincmar does quote, there’s a slight but significant change in the text: the Latin ‘si licet’ (= if it is permitted) has become ‘scilicet’ (=that is to say, certainly). Augustine had reservations about the secular law’s permission to execute, a tone of doubt – “If it is permitted”. Hincmar’s version of Augustine had neither doubt nor reservation. (See the picture above for the text).

This tiny textual variant isn’t common in the transmission of Augustine’s work. It might be scribal error, but it does seem a rather convenient one. Wherever this extra letter ‘c’ came from, the Frankish prelate was evidently a little more relaxed about uxoricide than the African bishop had been. Hincmar had a different attitude to how Christian law and ‘secular’ law could fit together, which wasn’t too great for Theutberga.

In the end, though, the queen escaped execution. What happened next? Well, you’ll have to wait till the book’s out… 

Hincmar, De Divortio, Extract
‘As Saint Augustine says (…), “Finally I ask of you, whether it is licit for a Christian husband, according either to the old law of God or by Roman laws, to kill an adulteress. Certainly [Augustine: If it is permitted], it is better that he should restrain himself from both, that is the permitted punishment for she who has sinned, and from an illicit marriage while she is alive.  But if he insists on choosing one, it is better for him to do what is allowed, so that the adulteress may be punished, than to do that which is not allowed, that while she is alive he commits adultery. But if, as is truly said, it is not allowed for a Christian man to kill his adulterous wife, but only to send her away…”

Hincmar continues: ‘…it is on this condition, that he may either live in continence or be reconciled to her, since if while she is alive he marries another, he too will without doubt be guilty of adultery’.

Original Augustine continues: ‘… who is so mad who would say to him, Do what is not permitted, so that what is not permitted to you will be permissible? For since both things are illicit according to the law of Christ, that is to kill an adulterous wife or to marry someone else while she is still alive, both should be refrained from, rather than doing the illicit for the illicit. But if he must do what is not allowed, let him commit adultery and not murder, so that he shall marry someone else while his wife is still alive and not shed human blood. Yet if two things are nefarious, he ought not to perpetrate one for the sake of the other, but avoid both’.