All posts by Charles West

Winning political consent, Carolingian-style

On Thursday, voters in the UK will to go to the polls to elect a new government. Although they agree about the apparent inevitability of Brexit, the two main parties in England are otherwise miles apart in their policies. That means voters have a clear choice. Thanks to the UK’s peculiar ‘first-past-the-post’ system, however, it also means that millions of people will be very disappointed on Friday morning, as it’s almost certain that the winning party will attract well under half the vote. The whole thing seems almost designed to generate dissatisfaction. Did things work any better in the Middle Ages?

Contrary to what some people may tell you, elections were pretty common in the medieval period, though usually with a restricted franchise, and not normally on a strict one-person one-vote basis. As towns grew in size, they were often run by elected officials, and election was an important principle in the church throughout the period, for popes, bishops and abbots (and abbesses) in particular. Even crusaders elected their leaders on occasion.

Sometimes kings were elected too, but most often they based their claim to rule on inheritance. Even so, governing with the consent of (some of) the governed was vital, in practice as well as in theory. A king who lost the trust of his aristocracy could, like King John in England or Emperor Louis the Pious in Francia, find himself in serious trouble, accused of tyranny, and facing rebellion and even deposition.

So although medieval kings didn’t need to win regular elections, they did need to generate consent amongst the elite. The Carolingian kings of the ninth century were already masters of this game. For instance, they used to hold a ‘secret’ meeting with their most trusted and senior advisors to thrash things out, before then holding a ‘general’ meeting with a much larger group, to discuss the same issues all over again as if for the first time. All the senior advisors would stick to the secretly pre-arranged line, so the second meeting’s outcome was more or less predictable. A way of sneakily sewing up the meeting in advance: or a sensible method of steering discussion, generating buy-in, and avoiding divisive conflict?

This blog was prompted however by another Carolingian tactic, evidenced by a text whose English translation is provided below (for the first time in full) – the Capitulary of Quierzy of 877, issued by King Charles the Bald of West Francia. Capitularies were essentially royal edicts, declarations of the royal will, and this capitulary is no different. It’s traditionally been seen as marking the beginning of the end for Carolingian rule (and the onset of feudalism), because it supposedly recognised that public offices could be inherited. In reality, a quick glance will show that King Charles very much kept the whip-hand: sons could take over their fathers’ offices temporarily, while Charles was away, but he reserved the right to appoint someone else on his return.

But maybe what’s most interesting about this text isn’t its content, but its “unique form”[1]: the way that it’s written out partially in a question-and-answer format, or, more accurately, as a set of declarations followed by affirmatory responses. For instance, King Charles begins by stating that the church ought to be protected, which evokes this response: “We all praise and wish to keep the first chapter, as you have decreed with God’s inspiration”.

Now,  the capitulary could be a verbatim record of the Quierzy meeting, borrowing  techniques used to record church councils, in which case it could show how a king might choreograph consent in royal assemblies.[2] But at no point is it ever spelled out exactly who this ‘we’ is, which is a rather strange omission.

So just as likely is that this response-format is primarily a textual effect, designed to communicate consent to readers, rather than faithfully recording – or scripting – an actual dialogue. Agreement is literally ‘built-in’ to the Quierzy edict, in an innovative and rather striking fashion. The text comes pre-ratified, so to speak: the royal will has already received consent, before any further discussion.

It’s been said that Thursday’s election in the UK may be about control of the means of production, but that it’ll be won through control of the means of representation. King Charles might not have understood the politics involved (and they might have confirmed his rather mixed opinion of the English) – but it’s a lesson he and his advisors would instinctively have grasped.

English translation (pdf): Quierzy capitulary 877

[1] J.L. Nelson, Charles the Bald, p. 248.

[2] As proposed by J.L. Nelson, ‘Carolingian royal ritual’, in The Frankish World, 750-900, p. 120,

Image: Charles the Bald, from the Codex Aureus of St Emmeram, made a few years before the Capitulary of Quierzy (full page here)

Verify the Source

If you pay a visit to the Sheffield city archives, you might spot a nearby piece of graffiti, pictured above:  ‘Verify the Source’.

That’s a great lesson, and not just for the patrons of the Sheffield archive, as was brought home to me when I revisited some work I’ve been doing on (who else?) Hincmar of Reims, everyone’s favourite Frankish bishop. I’m particularly interested in a text Hincmar wrote in 868, known as the Rotula, defending clerics from being put on trial in secular courts. It’s quite a famous text (well, in a niche kind-of-way),  and is readily accessible in Patrologia Latina.

PL, as it’s known, is a huge set of Latin texts, whose ubiquity has been strengthened by being readily available – and searchable – online. The problem is that Patrologia Latina was put together in the 19th century in a hurry,  and mostly just reprinted earlier editions. In this case, it relied for Hincmar’s text on a 17th-c. edition by a French Jesuit called Louis Cellot. So,  the searchable version of PL on your screen is a striking combination of 21st, 19th and 17th-century text technologies – a triple mediation of the early medieval manuscripts.

And in this case, a price has been paid.

Because though Cellot’s edition was quite good, it relied on a very partial manuscript of Hincmar’s work, now in Barcelona (Ripoll 40). Another version of the Rotula  is however available in a different manuscript, one now in Berlin (SB Phill 1741). And it’s a much more complete version, with several fairly long passages not present in the Barcelona manuscript, or in Cellot’s edition, or in the PL.

And what that means is that a key passage in a key work by a key early medieval author has never – to my knowledge – been edited before (a draft English translation is given below), while historians have been happily relying on the (not so) trusty PL.

Like the graffiti says: ‘verify the source’…

Hincmar of Reims: a new passage of the Rotula (868)
“And if a bishop or any ecclesiastical cleric has a case against a layman, and the layman with the cleric seeks episcopal judgement or agrees to undergo it, then each party should and can absolutely be judged by the bishops. But if the layman does not seek episcopal judgment nor agrees to undergo it, then the ecclesiastical cleric should pursue his case against the layman in his forum, with the permission of the bishop involved, through a procurator: except for criminal actions and those actions for which the holy laws set out a clear account of how they should be amended and corrected, as the Valentinian Law demonstrates, saying “If any cleric accuses someone in a dispute, let him be heard in the forum of him whom he summons to the judge, if however the accused does not agree to come to priestly judgement”. And the holy Leo and the Roman synod in the letter cited above indeed says “If a cleric accuses a layman, let him first demand to be heard by bishops, then if he sees that the layman blocks his request, let him contest it in the disceptatio of secular moderators, with his bishop’s permission”. That is, not in person but through an advocate, as the law of Archadius and Honorius and Theodosius decrees”.

Fragments of history – or, why judges shouldn’t get married

One of the joys of being a historian of the early Middle Ages is working with fragmentary evidence: artefacts shorn of clear and definite context, and isolated, often incomplete texts that are at first sight inscrutable – and that often remain so even after further inspection. This blog’s about one of these fragments that I stumbled across in the course of my research into clerical exemption.

At the end of a ninth-century canon law manuscript now in Florence, a slightly later hand entered a passage that appears to be an imperial decree prohibiting secular judges from getting married. Here’s a draft English translation from the (rather tricky) Latin.[1]

About the life and continence of judges.
Moreover, it is permitted to none of the judges giving the law in our sacred palace or elsewhere in our kingdoms to contract marriages. This is so that they should not be led by love of their children to leave the path of truth and law, and to unjustly seize other people’s property for the ambition of their children, using their judgements for their advantage. But let them despise the delights of this wicked world, and hold to the norm of truth in all things, in customs, apparel and the signs of all goodness, and as we determined above in another capitulary, let them imitate the religious priests, and adhere in all things to their laws.

What should the historian think, faced with such a text? The first reaction is surely that this must be a forgery. No Roman, Carolingian or Ottonian emperor ever issued any command like this, at least not to my knowledge. Rulers often did worry about judges’ private interests interfering with their decisions, but there was never a prohibition on secular judges getting married. That would have gone against the grain of how medieval society worked. The text is entirely unprecedented.

But that observation doesn’t exhaust the text’s interest. The parallel it draws between judges and priests, urging the former to imitate the latter, is fascinating. Arguments about priestly marriage flared up in Western Europe in the eleventh century, but they did so on the basis of earlier anxieties and concerns. This little text, which is probably tenth- or early eleventh-century, illustrates that point very neatly. It looks like before Pope Leo IX and his circle came together, someone was already hard at work constructing a legal precedent to support a stronger line on married priests, by fair means or foul.

Of course, the aim of establishing a continent (and eventually celibate) priesthood was to create a sharper distinction between the laity and the priesthood. So it’s ironic that this author sought to justify the position with reference to secular law, and secular judges. Perhaps that’s why the text doesn’t seem to have circulated?

Update (11.01.17). In light of the very useful comments on this blog, I’ve realised Kaiser’s text might repay more detailed attention. So I’ve ordered a copy of the relevant folios to examine the palaeography more closely (and now have an excuse to visit the library in Florence, too). I’ll keep you posted!


[1] Edited by Wolfgang Kaiser, Authentizität und Geltung Spätantiker Kaisergesetze (Munich, 2007), p. 204, n. 12, from Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana Edili 82. Kaiser provides no commentary other than to observe that this Heiratsverbot seems neither to be in any other manuscript nor to have been edited before. I have not yet been able to see the manuscript.

Latin (from Kaiser):
De vita et continentia iudicum. Nulli praeterea ex iudicibus nostris sacro palatio iura dantibus vel in omnibus regnorum nostrorum finibus liceat contrahere matrimonium (interlinear: id est mulierem) ne forte filiorum inducti diligentia a veritati et legis declinantes semita aliena iniuste subrepta ambitione filiorum ad opus eorundem per sua trahant discrimina sed huius noxii contempnentes (interlinear: id est respuentes) saeculi delicias normam veritatis ubique teneant moribus vestibus atque totius bonitatis insignibus sicut superios in alio capitulo statuimus religiosorum sacerdotum imitentur eorumque per omnia inhereant legibus.

‘I, Dado’: the politics of commemoration in Verdun

Today, the eastern French city of Verdun is best known in Britain for its role in the First World War. That association is even stronger in France, where the Battle of Verdun occupies the symbolic place equivalent to that of the Battle of the Somme in the UK. As such, the town is at the heart of the current state-supported programmes of commemoration.

But Verdun has of course a longer history – and what’s more, the politics of its commemoration go back a lot further than the twentieth century, as I’ll be talking about at a conference in Gent later this week, on ‘Bishops in the Age of Iron’.

In particular, I’m going to discuss a remarkable document written in the year 893 by a bishop of Verdun named Dado (you can read my  English translation of it here as a pdf). Known as the ‘Memorial of Bishop Dado’, it’s a short first-person account of Verdun’s history, and of Dado’s place in it. In other words, it presents an early medieval bishop’s own view of history, both personal and institutional.

Bishop Dado’s text is fascinating for what it has to say about the importance of aristocratic family consciousness in the early Middle Ages, and for the prominence of Carolingian kings too. Dado was proud that he was the nephew of the preceding bishop of Verdun Berhard (‘my uncle’, he reminds the reader several times), and in a short text he manages to cram in six Carolingian kings, all mentioned by name.

But Dado’s text is also interesting for what it doesn’t say. The absence of the treaty signed in Verdun in 843 that broke apart the Frankish empire is maybe understandable, since Dado only begins his account with Hatto, Verdun’s bishop from 847. But the lack of any reference to Bishop Hatto’s close involvement in the royal divorce scandal that rocked the Frankish world in the 860s is more striking.

Bishop Hatto had been closely involved helping King Lothar II secure his divorce so he could marry Waldrada, for which the king amply rewarded him with lands. But when things began to go awry in the divorce process, the bishop seems to have reassessed his priorities, building bridges instead with the fiery pope Nicholas.

A generation later, Bishop Dado celebrated Hatto’s success in acquiring property for the church of Verdun, but he evidently preferred not to mention the political context behind it. And he doesn’t mention popes at all – not because they hadn’t had an impact on Verdun, but because that impact didn’t fit the story he wanted to be told. Nor for that matter does Dado mention the contested circumstances of his own election (the details, as a result, are rather murky).

Dado, in other words, was choosing what he thought should be publicly remembered about Verdun, and skirting round a difficult past. His text may be short, but it’s a carefully fashioned remembering nevertheless, notable for what it misses out as much as for what it contains.

Really, that’s not surprising:  commemoration – that is, remembering in its organised forms – is always a bit about forgetting, if only because you can’t emphasise all of the past at the same time. It may seem ironic that today’s symbol of official remembrance, the poppy, chosen for its links to the battlefields around Verdun,  is also the plant that produces the drug most closely associated with obliviousness – but in another sense perhaps it’s quite appropriate.

National commemorations are of course important, and in this case a fitting tribute to the tens of thousands of men who died in the battlefields around Verdun. But there are different ways of remembering the past, and different pasts to be remembered.  Dado’s Memorial reminds us not only of the city’s longer history – a history that inevitably tends to be overlooked – but also of how the act of commemoration itself has a deeper history to be explored.

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Translation of Bishop Dado of Verdun’s Memorial (pdf).

Image: Richard de Wassebourg’s edition of Dado’s text.

In Praise of Gobbets

As the teaching year begins, one of the routine tasks historians in many UK institutions face is explaining to puzzled students (and sometimes new colleagues too) what we mean by “gobbets”.

This is a venerable and (I suspect) distinctly British form of examination in which students are provided with a series of text extracts or images, and expected to write something about them in a short period of time: typically, 20 minutes for each extract (or ‘gobbet’). They are sometimes labelled old-fashioned – but in fact they’re ideally suited to the 21st-century classroom.

As an example, here’s one that we’ll be studying in my class:

“The holy Roman Church, as the mother and teacher, nurse and instructress of all churches, is to be consulted about all doubtful and obscure things which concern the continuity of the right faith or the dogmas of piety, and her healthful admonitions are to be kept”.
– Hincmar of Rheims, De Divortio, 860

How might one ‘respond’ to this gobbet? Well, a good response might explain that 9th-century Frankish clerics increasingly claimed their churches had been founded by St Peter’s express request, hence the ‘mother of all churches’ phrase; might further observe that this, the opening line of the treatise, signals Hincmar’s caution in carefully avoiding a definitive conclusion for fear of being proved wrong at this early stage of the controversy over King Lothar’s marriage; might then link this to Hincmar’s often fraught relation with the papacy, noting how in this passage he framed papal authority as primarily pedagogical (and that in fact he advised holding a general council rather than going straight to the pope); might pick up on the ‘doubtful and obscure things’, an issue that lay at the heart of the treatise and the divorce scandal as a whole; and could end by noting that the Roman church indeed did end up being consulted in the case, and that Pope Nicholas made great efforts to ensure that his ‘healthful admonitions’ were kept.

These are just the comments that spring to my mind as I write this blog: quite certainly other interesting things could be said about the content, context and significance of this short passage. The strength of the gobbet examination is that it blends assessing precise historical knowledge of the sources with interpretative creativity. You can’t bluff your way through them; but it’s not a test of how much you know, it’s a test of how you use that knowledge to make a point based on exactly what’s in front of you. Good responses tend to pick on the precise wording of the extract to make observations grounded in a wider knowledge; the best can surprise and enlighten even the person who chose the extracts in the first place.

According to legend, gobbets go back to Victorian period civil service exams: that may be so, but they seem to be coming back into fashion. In some ways that’s not surprising. After all, the contemporary world is all about “discontinuous reading”, it’s all about the fast-paced analysis of screenfuls of text. If the gobbet examination didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent it.

And if gobbets are in this way surprisingly “aligned” with the wider world, they’re also neatly aligned with history as it’s practised today. No wonder they’re a jewel in the crown of final year examinations (alongside of course other examination forms such as dissertations): they’re an excellent means of simultaneously assessing – and promoting – both knowledge of a broad range of historical sources and a methodological sophistication in historical interpretation, all with reference to the particular as well as the general. And isn’t all that still at the heart of what historians actually do?

‘May this water be a test for you’: trial by cold water in 9th-century Francia

One of the distinctively post-Roman things about post-Roman Europe was the emergence of a new kind of legal procedure, the trial by ordeal. In its various different forms – the main ones were hot iron, boiling water, cold water, and trial by battle – the ordeal comes particularly into view in the ninth century, when there was something of a debate about its ethics and efficacy. One of its staunchest defenders was Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, who in his De Divortio (available in all good bookshops etc) justified it at some length.

Practical instructions on how to carry out an ordeal are quite common in ninth- and tenth-century manuscripts, often inserted as aide-memoires. Below is an English translation of one of these texts, associated with ninth-century Rheims – so, the kind of text that priests in Hincmar’s diocese might have come across. It gives instructions on how to carry out the ordeal by water on a group of men suspected of theft.

There are several interesting things about this text. First, although the role of the priest is essential, the text doesn’t seem to be addressed to the priest himself. Perhaps it was meant for a count or other judicial officer. Secondly, it’s a very elaborate procedure: throwing the suspects into the water is merely the last stage in a whole string of actions, designed to pile the pressure on the guilty/guarantee God’s intervention (depending on your point of view). These include public communion, blessing with holy water, holy incantations, and the fasting of the immediate participants.

Finally, the text has a notably defensive tone. The possibility that witchcraft could distort the outcome is acknowledged (this was something that bothered Hincmar too). And the text ends with the assertion that the ordeal was devised by God, had been confirmed by papal sanction, and was to be used instead of alternative procedures, such as swearing an oath on the high altar. Clearly whoever wrote down this text was aware of contemporary criticisms – and that attack is the best form of defence!

Translation: Instructions for the ordeal of cold water*
*Please don’t try this at home

Update 17.1.17: I still haven’t located the manuscript from which this text comes (the edition isn’t clear). But a very similar ordeal text was present in a manuscript that was almost certainly made by Hincmar c. 874. This manuscript is now lost BUT the ordeal text happily survives in an early modern transcription in Duchesne 64, at f.49v (or so it seems: I’ll check the next time I’m in Paris,  since it doesn’t seem to be online). For all the details, see R. Pokorny, ‘Sirmonds verlorener Luetticher Codex der Hinkmar-Schriften’, Deutsches Archiv 66 (2010), esp. p. 532.

Image: Lambach, Stiftsbibliothek Codex 73: a 12th-century liturgical manuscript (Wikipedia)

How (not) to edit a medieval chronicle

The medieval chronicler Hugh of Flavigny has recently been in the UK news, after Marc Morris suggested that some biographers of William the Conqueror have been misreading his chronicle. A passage which has been taken as describing King William as ‘jovial’ in fact refers to someone else entirely.

How important this is for our knowledge of William the Conqueror I shall leave to others to decide – you can read Marc Morris’s new popular biography of the king for yourselves. But the issue brings back into focus a rather neglected chronicler – and also raises interesting questions about how we re-present texts that were written centuries ago.

It’s true that Hugh of Flavigny isn’t much read outside a fairly narrow circle today. But he ought to be! He observed at close quarters the struggles between pope and emperor in the late eleventh century, for which he’s a very important source. And while he didn’t describe King William as ‘jovial’, Hugh did visit England in the 1090s as part of a diplomatic mission

In fact he recounts some lurid stories about the country. For instance, he recalls how the archbishop of York Gerard was caught in secret conversation with the devil, planning to feed his guests with bewitched pork as part of a satanical ritual; and how Gerard’s brother, a cleric at the king’s chapel named Peter, confessed to becoming pregnant after intercourse with a man, and died from the resulting growth (no, I’m not making it up! Here’s the Latin).

With this sort of content, you might think the time is ripe for a translation of Hugh (to my knowledge, there isn’t one, in any language). And you’d be right. But first of all, what we actually need is a new edition of the original Latin. We currently rely on the edition of Georg Pertz, produced in 1848. For its time, this was an excellent piece of work. But as has recently been pointed out by Mathias Lawo, it doesn’t really do justice to Hugh’s chronicle, which survives in just one copy – in fact what seems to be Hugh’s own personal manuscript (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Phillipps 1870).

Here’s a picture of a page from Pertz’s 19th-century edition:

HF p. 354

Now, compare that with a picture of the original 11th-century manuscript, courtesy of the Berlin State Library,  on which that same page was based:


As is clear just by looking at the original with all its marginal insertions, Hugh added to his chronicle as he wrote it – as he found new sources, or as his personal priorities changed over his eventful career. It seems that his purpose in writing changed as time went on: his chronicle went from being mostly about his own monastery in Verdun, to being about wider questions of church reform – and then to being about his new monastery, Flavigny. But this is obscured by the 1848 edition, which squeezes Hugh’s messy text into the neat format of a printed book.

In some cases, it’s not even clear where in his text Hugh meant to insert his additions. But the edition had to put the text somewhere in the linear flow, so Georg Pertz had to make decisions. Those decisions weren’t necessarily bad ones, but they’re invisible to the reader encountering the text in this way. As a result, Pertz’s edition in a way creates a text that never existed. It’s hardly going too far to say that when we read Pertz’s edition, what we’re reading is a 19th-century interpretation of Hugh’s chronicle.

A stop-gap revised edition has been made available by the MGH (thanks to Ed Roberts for pointing this out to me), which ‘highlights’ all of Hugh’s later additions. But what’s really required is a new edition as a type-face facsimile of the original – not technically possible in Pertz’s day, but perfectly practical nowadays.  Then we could read not only the words that Hugh wrote: but read them in the right order, too. Any volunteers?

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The Transformation of the Carolingian World – a comparative workshop

With the support of the Humboldt Foundation and SFB 923, ‘Threatened Orders’, Professor Steffen Patzold and I are organising an international workshop in Tübingen on Friday 2nd – Saturday 3rd September.

The workshop aims to shed fresh light on the ‘transformation of the Carolingian world’ by taking a discrete set of issues and comparing them in the ninth and eleventh centuries. Married priests, the place of the papacy, the role of bishops, and heresy and peace movements: how should we best plot the changes in social order between the Carolingian and the Gregorian ‘reforms’? The workshop will explore this question through a series of short, informal presentations.

Venue: Tübingen, Hegelbau, Room 228


FRIDAY 2nd September

2pm introduction – Steffen Patzold/Charles West

Session 1. 2.30pm – 3.30pm. The Papacy
Clara Harder (Cologne) and Kriston Rennie (Dresden/Queensland)

3.30pm – 4pm coffee break

Session 2: 4pm–5pm Nicolaitism
Marco Stoffella (Tübingen/Verona) and Steffen Patzold

SATURDAY 3rd September

Session 3. 9.30am – 10.30am Bishops and the World
Charles West and Fraser McNair (Brussels)

1030am – 11am coffee

Session 4: 1100am – 12noon Peace and Heretics
Miriam Czock (Duisburg-Essen) and Warren Pezé (Tübingen)

12 noon: Conclusion.

In defence of Campus Galli

A couple of days ago I visited Campus Galli. Located in south-western Germany, it’s a new, eccentric and almost insanely ambitious project to build an entire Carolingian monastery, from scratch, using early medieval techniques, over the next 20 years or so. You can see smiths, potters and stonemasons at work, and eat a ‘Carolingian sausage’ in a bun. I had great fun. But on my return home I learned that the site has been bitterly criticised by ‘living history’ specialists. Why?

At the root of most of the criticism is the claim that the site isn’t sufficiently ‘authentic’. For example, a well-known blogger who goes by the name of Hiltibold, and who clearly dislikes the project quite intensely, has posted a set of photographs with anachronisms angrily circled in red: volunteers eating chocolate, wearing modern shoes, and so forth. For him, it’s a ‘Disneyland in disguise’.

These criticisms seem to me fundamentally to miss the point. Whatever the marketing rhetoric, sites like this are infotainment. There’s no point striving for perfect accuracy in ‘reconstructing the past’ in this way, it’s just a question of making a reasonable effort. Imagination can fill out the rest. After all, the most dedicated enthusiast might wear the clothes of a 10th-century Scandinavian with every last detail perfected, but he would still be a 21st-century man pretending to be an early medieval one.

And that’s of course OK. There are different ways to engage with the past: empathetically, to imagine what it might have been like, and intellectually, to try to understand it. Both are important in different ways. Sites like Campus Galli can be truly inspiring, encouraging visitors to find out more about a distant past. Many a future historian might have her interest first piqued by such a visit. Some might buy a book from the (very respectable) set on offer in the shop.

What makes the Campus Galli particularly valuable is the fact that it’s an ecclesiastical site. Most living history tends – with some very honourable exceptions  like Bede’s World, though its future is now unclear – to focus on the non-Christian aspects of the European Middle Ages. Even if it gets some of the details wrong, it’s good that Campus Galli is redressing the balance, and getting the wider public interested in the medieval church. Maybe that’s why a few enthusiasts dislike it so.

What makes the nitpicking all the more out of place is the nature of the Campus Galli project. For the workers and volunteers are not rebuilding a monastery, they are building one. The monastery in question never actually existed. The site is based instead on the marvellous Plan of St-Gall, an idealised Carolingian monastery sketched out on parchment c. 830, but never constructed, and maybe never really intended to be. Campus Galli is thus delightfully a modern fantasy overlaid on a medieval one.

As a result, the inevitable intrusion of the modern world isn’t really a problem. In fact, in some ways it’s to be welcomed. Germany has led Europe in offering shelter to refugees fleeing from the wars in the Middle East: and according to our tour guide, there were some Syrian refugees working at the site when we visited. Nothing could be more 21st century than that: but nothing could fit better with the optimistic idealism, and the dream of a better society, that underpinned the original Plan of St Gall, too.

How to become bishop: ecclesiastical liberty in the ninth century

What’s the best way to become a bishop? Writing around 835, a cleric gave an example of how it should be done. Long ago, there was a rich man from a Lyon senatorial family called Eucherius. He gave away all his money to the poor, and went to live in a remote cave. There he hid alone for many years, fasting and praying, until the bishop of Lyon died. Then divine grace revealed Eucherius to the Lyon clergy as the best replacement, so they retrieved him from his cave and ordained him as their new bishop.

The cleric who tells us this story, Florus of Lyon, isn’t very well-known today outside the circle of specialists. That’s a pity, because he’s a fascinating figure. Steeped in patristic learning, he cultivated a range of interests, including UFOs (yes, really – see ‘Florus de Lyon et les extra-terrestres’ on Pierre Chambert-Protat’s highly recommended blog). Florus could be acerbic, and he could also be radical: and his account of how Eucherius became bishop of Lyon is a case in point.

That’s because Florus didn’t tell the story to suggest that all prospective future bishops should give away their money and live hidden in remote caves waiting for their moment (a rather risky career strategy). Rather, what he wanted to emphasise was that no king had been involved in Eucherius’s appointment. And that kings had no role to play in episcopal appointments was the point of the short treatise in which Florus included this story, On the appointment of bishops, and which you can read here in a draft English translation  (to my knowledge, the first time it’s been translated).

In this treatise, Florus used the example of Eucherius (who really did become bishop of Lyon, in the fifth century) to suggest that worldly rulers never really had played a role in appointing bishops. Certainly the Christian Roman emperors hadn’t, because they were too busy ruling the entire world to bother with every single appointment. Florus described this situation as one of church freedom, ecclesiastica libertas. Afterwards, princes in ‘some kingdoms’ began to be consulted on appointments, but nothing more. Florus observed that even in his own day, not only was the pope of Rome appointed without royal interference, the pope himself ordained bishops without royal involvement.

Florus suggested that this tradition was only right and proper, because worldly rulers did not have the capacity to appoint new bishops: ordination was a gift of the Holy Spirit, not of humans. In some ways, Florus was stating the obvious here, since medieval kings never claimed that they could themselves ordain bishops. But in other ways, this was a very radical argument, since in practice kings in Florus’s day exercised a lot of influence in the appointment procedure, up to the point of choosing the successful candidate.

Indeed, lots about Florus’s Book on the election of bishops has strong resonances with later currents of what we now call Gregorian church reform. For instance, the concern with drawing a sharper distinction between the church and the world; the focus on ecclesiastical appointments; the emphasis on the church’s freedom; the emphasis on the papacy; a distinctly polemical tone; and the use of Late Antique sources in new ways, for Florus’s short text cites Cyprian at length. In this respect as in other ways (hostility to Jews and heretics), Carolingian Lyons seems to have been something of a laboratory for later ideas.[1]

However, Florus’s argument wasn’t effective in the 830s. He seems to have written the treatise to stop the Frankish emperor Louis the Pious from imposing a new bishop named Amalarius on the church of Lyon. But directly challenging the emperor proved not to be the most tactful approach, so Florus gamely switched tactics, and mounted a no-holds-barred campaign to show instead that Amalarius was a heretic – a campaign which eventually worked much better.

Yet Florus’s text about appointing bishops is preserved in four manuscripts from around 900 (thanks to Gallica you can see one of them here), showing that near-contemporaries could see and appreciate the general significance of this work, even after the immediate controversy it was written for had died down. The so-called Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century, it’s becoming ever clearer, had very deep roots.

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Image: Wikipedia (the Prague Gospels, s. IX: Cim 2, knihovně Pražské metropolitní kapituly)

[1] See the very stimulating article by Warren Pézé, ‘Amalaire et la communauté juive de Lyon. À propos de l’antijudaïsme lyonnais à l’époque carolingienne’, Francia 40 (2013), pp. 1-25, open access here