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