All posts by Charles West

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

Religion and Law – historical and contemporary perspectives

A series of lunchtime talks in the autumn, 2016: Wednesdays at 1.15pm (45 mins), Sheffield Cathedral (St George’s Chapel).  

The relationship between religion and law is a topic that seems particularly pressing in 21st-century Britain. It is at the heart of discussions about the disestablishment of the Church of England, about the ‘right to die’, and about the place of sharia law in UK courts, to name just a few current debates.

This series of talks, a collaboration between the Cathedral and the University of Sheffield, explores different aspects of this important question, offering historical as well as contemporary perspectives. How have religion and law co-existed in the past, and what shape will this relationship take in the future?

Open to all, free entry. To reserve your place, please visit the EventBrite page.

Missed one of the talks? Don’t worry! Each one is the subject of a weekly blog, available here


5th October. Dr Mark Finney –  Religion and the Law in early Christian Traditions

12th October. Dr Julia Hillner – Religion and Exile in the Roman Empire

19th October. Dr Charles West – Getting off the hook? Clerical exemption from the law in the Middle Ages

26th October. Prof. Anthony Milton – ‘An unholy mess’: religion and law in early modern England

2nd November. Imam Sheikh Mohammed Ismail –  Sharia councils in contemporary British society: conflict or not?

9th November. Prof. David McClean – Church Establishment in a Global Context

Under the Angel’s Gaze: The Divorce of King Lothar and Queen Theutberga

Today sees the publication of a book that we’ve been working on for almost a decade, The Divorce of King Lothar and Queen Theutberga. It’s an annotated translation of a long ninth-century Latin treatise written by Hincmar, the archbishop of Rheims in France. That might seem a rather obscure topic, but when we explain that the treatise is about a royal divorce scandal, and that it discusses  witchcraft, kingship, incest and trial by ordeal, we hope you’ll see the interest. This blog is to explain our book’s cover picture – and why the author we’ve translated would have loved it, and the king he wrote about would have hated it.

The picture comes from the Stuttgart Psalter, a marvellously-illuminated ninth-century book that is now (as its name suggests) in Stuttgart, but that was originally made in Paris, at the monastery of St-Germain-des-Pres (you can see the whole manuscript here). The picture accompanies Psalm 45 (Psalm 44 in the Vulgate), and shows a king and queen embracing. The king and queen are both mentioned in the psalm, but the quizzical angel standing on the right (our favourite bit) is the illustrator’s artistic licence.

Because our text is about a royal divorce – King Lothar II’s scandalous attempt to rid himself of Queen Theutberga – this image of a royal couple obviously resonates. But we also chose this picture because the manuscript it comes from has some connections to our translation. The abbot of the monastery when it was made was a man called Hilduin: as it happens, Hilduin was the teacher and mentor of Archbishop Hincmar, the author of the treatise. Perhaps Hilduin might even have proudly showed the freshly painted manuscript to the young Hincmar.

In any case, we like to think that a thin smile might have played across the lips of the austere archbishop of Rheims if he could see our book cover, mainly because of the watching angel. As Hincmar explains in his treatise, King Lothar’s divorce case affected everyone, both because marriage was fundamental to society and because kings were supposed to set a moral example to their subjects. That meant that they were constantly being watched, both by their subjects and by God, who would condemn them more harshly for their lapses than mere ordinary sinners. And as the illustration shows, you can’t hide from God or his angels – who might not be very impressed by what they saw.

As for King Lothar II, the subject of the treatise, it’s just possible that he might have seen this image too. In the course of the Frankish civil wars of the 840s, it seems Abbot Hilduin left Paris to join Emperor Lothar I, whose kingdom was around Aachen. Perhaps he took the Stuttgart Psalter with him, which would explain how it ended up in Germany. We can’t of course prove that Emperor Lothar’s son, King Lothar II, saw the manuscript at some point during his reign (855-869), but it can’t be ruled out.

But we suspect that unlike Archbishop Hincmar, the king would not have been remotely amused by our use of this particular image for a text about his divorce. The psalm that the picture illustrates in the manuscript is a song of triumph to accompany a magnificent royal wedding. It promises the king a happy and glorious reign, and that his sons will succeed him as rulers. Unfortunately, this is more or less the opposite of what actually happened to King Lothar II, with enormous consequences for himself, his family (including his wives Theutberga and Waldrada), his kingdom, and indeed for Europe as whole – consequences that our new book explores.

Rachel Stone is a Visiting Research Fellow at KCL, and Charles West is a Reader in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. The Divorce of King Lothar and Queen Theutberga, published by Manchester University Press, is available online for just £10 as part of the MUP sale,  and at all good bookshops for £19.99.

Revenants revisited

Last week, the Medieval and Ancient Research Centre at Sheffield held an event marking the Norman Conquest.[1] I offered to speak about a peculiar case of vampires or revenants in the Derbyshire villages of Stapenhill and Drakelow (which I’ve touched on before elsewhere in a different format), and to explore its connection to the Norman Conquest. As I started to put the talk together, I briefly regretted my decision. After all, what can a ghost story about events in the 1090s, as told in the 1130s, have to do with 1066 and all that? Happily enough, a little preliminary research has showed that it’s rather more than one might imagine, shedding fresh light on this very mysterious episode.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, the story goes something like this (you can read a translation of the original text here). Around 1090, two villagers from Stapenhill, owned by the abbey of Burton, fled to the neighbouring village of Drakelow, which was owned by a prominent Norman aristocrat called Roger. Roger helped them out by plundering the abbot’s lands, but desisted after his men were (miraculously) beaten in battle by the abbot of Burton’s forces. Meanwhile, the two troublesome villagers mysteriously died. They were immediately buried at Stapenhill. But…

…. The very same evening of their burial, they reappeared at Drakelow, carrying their coffins on their backs. The pair proceeded to haunt the village over the next few weeks, until hardly anyone was left living there. Eventually their corpses were disinterred and ceremonially mutilated, which put an end to the nightly visitations, though Drakelow itself was nevertheless abandoned as a settlement.

So much for the story. As it happens, we have a very good idea of what the two villagers had been running away from, because the abbey of Burton produced an estate survey listing the dues of the peasants in Stapenhill around the 1130s. The dozen or so residents that this survey names must have heard of, and some might even have remembered, the peculiar events of a generation earlier. What’s more, the estate survey was organised by the very same person who wrote the ghost story for us, Abbot Geoffrey of Burton. This raises all kinds of methodological questions (which I hope to explore in greater detail on another occasion).

But what has all this got to do with the Norman Conquest? At first sight, not much. The Normans did not introduce the kinds of obligations that the Stapenhill peasants were fleeing (weekly labour for their lords, dues in kind, etc), though they might perhaps have helped intensify them. Nor did they introduce ideas about ghosts or revenants. Both these things were present in England before as after 1066 (as John Blair, for instance, has explored).

However, the plot thickens if we look at the history of the villages concerned. Domesday Book tells us that before the Conquest,  Drakelow had been owned by an Englishman named Alric. Most of Stapenhill was owned by the monastery of Burton, but another Englishman, Godric, owned a parcel of land there as well. He may well have been a retainer of the monastery, or linked in some way, since his lands intersected with the monastery elsewhere too. After the Conquest, however,  a Norman named Nigel de Stafford somehow ‘inherited’ the lands of both Godric and Alric. And it seems that these consolidated rights passed onto Roger, who was a real mover and shaker in early Anglo-Norman England.

That means that, as a direct consequence of 1066, there was in 1090 a very powerful aristocrat whose rights overlapped with those of the monastery’s at Stapenhill, and who also owned outright another estate just next to it, Drakelow. This is probably why the villagers fled from Stapenhill to Drakelow: something our story doesn’t itself explain. Either the peasants were taking advantage of the situation to negotiate a better deal with a plausible patron who might have relished the excuse to take on the monastery; or they were innocently caught in the cross-fire as Roger and the abbey squared off (who knows, maybe they really were Roger’s tenants).

Ghost stories and revenants can often be connected with social tensions of some kind or other: in this specific case, they are associated with stress caused by the face-off between two powerful landowners, stress that was an indirect result of the slaughter of Hastings, which had created a tenurial shake-up. This makes the story a good illustration of how political events at the “top” could trickle-down with unexpected implications for the “bottom”. Medieval society was more integrated than it might sometimes seem.

But there’s another Norman Conquest dimension to the tale. Why did our author, Abbot Geoffrey of Burton, record it in the first place? The answer is that it was proof of the power of Saint Modwenna, whose relics Burton housed. Saint Modwenna is a shadowy figure, about whom we know very little (though we assume that she was an obscure Anglo-Saxon saint).  But not much more was known in the twelfth century either. When Geoffrey arrived as abbot at Burton c. 1114, no one seems to have known anything about these relics. That was why Geoffrey set about establishing Modwenna’s cult, not least by writing down her life – in reality mostly copied from an Irish text (!) – and including some more recent miracles.

It seems to have bothered Abbot Geoffrey, in other words, that his monastery’s Modwenna was so mysterious. This doesn’t however seem to have bothered earlier Burton abbots.  Maybe information about her had been lost as the monastery “Normanised”. More likely, Modwenna had always been fairly shadowy, but this was more of a problem for “incomers” than it had been for incumbents, for whom the relics had always been there and therefore didn’t require any explaining.

So, just as the events that Abbot Geoffrey documented were in some way linked to the tenurial reshuffle indirectly caused by the Conquest, so his eagerness to record them (and our knowledge of them) might reflect an attempt to plug a “cultural gap” that had opened up as a consequence of the changes the Normans imposed on the Church, at least in personnel terms.

This isn’t the only evidence in the story for a cultural gap, though. As it happens, the name Drakelow actually means “Dragon’s Mound”: an extremely ominous place name. [2] The peasants themselves would surely have known this – they were after all English-speakers – so we may imagine that their own interpretation of events might have been different from the abbot’s. Did Abbot Geoffrey not mention this fact because, as a French-speaker, he didn’t realise – or did he simply prefer a different spin on things? Further research will help to elucidate this and other puzzles.

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Update: you can see a page of the British Library’s copy of the Modwenna text here

The text itself is translated and edited by Robert Bartlett, Geoffrey of Burton: Life and Miracles of St Modwenna (Oxford, 2002). For further work on the social context of “strange happenings” in the Middle Ages, see M. Innes and C. West, ‘Saints and Demons in the Carolingian Countryside’, in Steffen Patzold and Bernhard Zeller (eds.), Kleine Welten. Ländliche Gesellschaften im Karolingerreich (forthcoming).

[1] Impeccably organised by Alyx Mattison and James Chetwood.

[2] Thanks to Matt Innes for pointing this out to me.  See for the details.

Will the real Roman Emperor please stand up?

For a couple of years, I’ve been working intermittently on a translation of a long letter sent by the Carolingian king and emperor of Italy, Louis II, to his Byzantine counterpart Basil in 871. It probably still wouldn’t be done, had not an invitation to talk at a roundtable on Romanness after Rome prodded me to finish it. The draft translation – the first full one in English, about 5,000 words – is appended to this blog, in the hope of encouraging other people to study (and teach about) the text. It’s interesting for all kinds of reasons, but it’s especially useful for thinking through questions of what it was to be Roman after Rome, because its main concern was what it meant to be a post-Roman Roman emperor.

First, some background. Louis II, son of Emperor Lothar I, had been crowned the fourth Carolingian emperor in 844, aged around 20, before taking up sole rule in Italy on his father Lothar’s death in 855. Louis (surely the least well studied Carolingian, though Clemens Gantner is now on the case)  wrote this letter towards the end of his long reign, in response to a provocative message from Emperor Basil I of Byzantium (867-886). Basil’s letter itself is now lost, but its content can be fairly guessed from Louis’s reply and from the known political context, which included military co-operation against North African raiders and a marriage proposal.

In spite of this close collaboration, or maybe because of it, Emperor Basil’s letter centred on a refusal to accept that Louis was the, or even a, Roman emperor. This was on two grounds: because the title was not hereditary (paternum), and because it was not suitable (non convenit) for someone from a gens, that is from an ethnic group, such as (in this case) the Franks. There was only one Roman emperor, and that was him, Basil. Louis might perhaps be emperor of the Franks, but that was all – and Basil was not sure even about that, because only the leader of the Romans  could be the basileus (the Greek word for emperor). Louis was a Frank, and that was that.

To a great extent, therefore, Basil’s arguments (and understanding of his own office) rested on his conceptions of ethnicity and Romanness. For Basil, the world was divided between the (Byzantine) Romans on the one hand, and the various gentes on the other. Being a Roman was not the equivalent to being a Frank, or a Saracen, or a Khazar, because Romanness was not an “ethnicity”: there was no Roman gens. As a consequence, having an ethnic identity – which we might translate almost as “being a foreigner” – in Basil’s view intrinsically excluded an imperial identity.

Louis’s conceptions of ethnicity were very different, with major implications for how he viewed Romanness and empire. For Louis, ethnicity wasn’t about being a foreigner: rather, everyone belonged to an ethnic group. Each of these peoples or gentes could be led by a basileus, and historically often had been: the rulers of Constantinople had no monopoly on that title, but shared it with “other gentes”. Those gentes included the Romans, whom Louis describes as the gens romana: these were the people with a glorious past who lived in Rome, and whom (Louis points out) the Byzantines had deserted.

And they included too the gens Francorum. In a very interesting passage, Louis situates the Franks as not just the successors but the surrogates of the Romans, through a fascinating metaphor: “When the branches were broken, we were grafted onto them; when we were wild olives, we were joined to their roots and became fat with olives. We say therefore that the branches were broken so that we might be grafted on”. The Franks were therefore in effect the new Romans.

And yet – ultimately Louis did not define the Roman empire in relation to ethnicity. Even at the height of the Roman empire, Louis declared, non-Romans had become emperors. “In what way”, asked Louis, “is [the imperial title] inappropriate for a people (gens), since we know – mentioning only a few for the sake of brevity – that Roman emperors were created from the people (the gens) of Hispania, Isauria, and Khazaria?” The latter two examples related to fairly recent Byzantine history, but the former took the reader back to the fourth century. Louis went on to explain, “For certainly the elder Theodosius and his sons Arcadius and Honorius, and Theodosius the younger, the son of Arcadius, were raised from Spaniards to the summit of the Roman empire. And we do not find that anyone complained or grumbled that he was not a Roman but a Spaniard (quod non Romanus sed Hispanus existeret)”.

What was relevant for Roman imperial rule was therefore not what one was or was called, but what one did. Louis accordingly contrasted Frankish military prowess and bravery with Byzantine cowardice. There’s a delightful passage in the letter in which Louis comments on Basil’s claims that the Frankish envoys were so uncouth that they would have attacked the Byzantines with their teeth, had they not been afraid of him, Basil. Nonsense, says Louis, that can’t be right: our men would never have behaved like that – but anyway they aren’t afraid of anybody! Strikingly, Louis declares his intention to conquer Sicily too, to restore it to its “former liberty” after its recent capture by the Muslims.

Louis’s Roman imperial title was justified by war, then. But its chief justification nevertheless lay elsewhere: religion. The superiority of Frankish belief was manifested partly by Frankish religious learning – the letter itself is intended to show the command the Franks had of historical and ethnographic knowledge, both Greek and Latin. It was partly demonstrated by their missionary activities. But most of all, it was expressed by the recognition given to them by the Pope of Rome, who had rejected the cacadoxy and indeed heresy of the Byzantines in new Rome in favour of the orthodoxy of the gens Francorum. Louis was Roman emperor, because God had given him the city, people and church of Rome to protect. This was a Roman empire justified by results.

Talking of post-Roman Roman emperors has a touch of paradox about it, which is not dispelled by the squabbles between a Greek-speaking ruler based in Constantinople and a Frankish ruler who seldom actually visited Rome over who was the rightful heir to the Roman legacy. Indeed there is a related paradox at the heart of this letter. Basil did not think that the Romans were an ethnic group at all – and yet he nevertheless defined the Roman Empire in ethnic terms, in that it was defined against ethnicity. Louis by contrast lived in an entirely ethnicised world, and yet did not view the Roman Empire as defined by a relationship to ethnicity. This was the empire of God, Who had created all the gentes.

Basil to be sure had the greater weight of continuity on his side, since his arguments resonated with older Roman conceptions of identity. But Louis’s arguments made good sense of the facts on the ground, so to speak.  And proof of how convincing Louis’s arguments were is perhaps provided by the letter’s authorship. The letter was of course written in Louis’s name, and we may assume that he agreed with its sentiments. But Louis had naturally outsourced the actual drafting to someone else, in this case probably a prominent cleric called Anastasius the Librarian. Anastasius was highly educated and had experience of the Greek court, so he was an obvious choice. But Anastasius was not himself Frankish: he was Roman, from an important family of the city of Rome.

That such a figure, at the heart of the papal establishment, could elaborate the Frankish view of ethnicity – the simultaneous ethnicisation of Romanness and de-ethnicisation of empire – so conscientiously suggests that to some extent he had internalised it; that it was now the Roman view. By the late ninth century, Rome and the Byzantine world had indeed drifted very far apart.

Translation (pdf)Emperor Louis II of Italy to Emperor Basil I

*** Professor Berto has kindly brought to my attention his new English translation, Italian Carolingian historical and poetical texts, Pisa,  2016, which includes an English translation of Andreas of Bergamo’s chronicle as well as some poetical works (but does not include this text). 27.03.17 ****

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Pope Leo of Bourges

One of the firmest proponents of judicial “benefit of clergy” in the ninth century was the great archbishop Hincmar (when it suited him, anyway). And one of his favourite texts for proving the point was a decree issued by Pope Leo I (d. 461) at a Roman synod. As Letha Böhringer has shown here, Hincmar quoted this decree three times and at length: “So holy Leo, when a Roman synod was held, wrote…”, “And holy Leo, pontifex of the Roman Church, decreed in a synod held at Rome…”; “And holy Leo and the Roman synod decreed…”.

Looking at the text, it’s no wonder Hincmar liked Pope Leo’s letter so much. A full English translation is provided below (based on Paris BnF lat. 12445), but in summary, Pope Leo complained about clerics going to the “examen saecularium” in spite of ancient (secular) laws prohibiting this.  In future, such clerics were to be excommunicated. If however a cleric accused a layman, it was possible for him to go to a secular court, with his bishop’s permission, if the layman refused to come before the bishop. Hincmar felt obliged to add that an advocate would be necessary in that case; but otherwise the text suited his purpose very nicely, when he was trying to persuade kings not to put bishops on trial.

So far, so good. The only problem is that in reality Pope Leo wrote nothing of the kind (even though a – poor quality – edition of the letter was included in the Patrologia Latina’s set of Leo’s writings) . The actual author of the text was a somewhat mysterious Bishop Leo of Bourges, working together with the bishops of Tours and Le Mans at some point in the mid-fifth century. The earliest manuscript of the text (the late 8th-century “Pithou collection” of Paris BnF lat. 1564) is quite unambiguous: in this version there’s no connection to Rome, and the text is copied down in a series of material linked to the Loire valley. Only in Hincmar’s own collection of legal texts, Paris BnF 12445 and Berlin SB 1741, has the Bourges letter become Roman – as marked by the inclusion of the words “et synodus romana” into the letter in both manuscripts, a phrase conspicuously absent from the earlier version.

That a minor provincial synod had issued a text like this is remarkable in itself; it’s important (and rather overlooked) evidence for the practical impact of clerical immunity in fifth-century Gaul. But how did this letter become transformed into a decree issued by Pope Leo the Great – at what point between c. 450 and c. 860  was the text “papalized”? And was this the result of genuine confusion between Leos, or a more deliberate attempt to put a crystal-clear statement about clerical immunity into a prestigious papal mouth? Given that the three manuscripts of the text I have mentioned are the only ones I know of, it’s not easy to say. One might conclude that innocent Hincmar knew the text only in the papalized version present in his own manuscripts.

And yet…. As it happens, Jinty Nelson has identified another occasion on which Hincmar drew on the text – one not mentioned by Letha Böhringer. This comes in a letter the archbishop helped to write in the name of King Charles the Bald to Pope Hadrian II in 871. And this time there’s a surprising change in how the text is referred to. Here’s the relevant passage: “And as Leo and the synod of Bourges (Byturicensis synodus) wrote, kings and emperors, whom divine power ordered to be in charge of the earth,  have permitted to bishops the right of dealing with their own affairs according to divine constitutions…”.

Misattributing a papal decree in a letter to Pope Hadrian would have been risky, because previous popes, like Nicholas, had learned to check up on Hincmar’s citations. In any case, although a papal association for the text had been useful for Hincmar previously, it was much less so here, because the thrust of this letter was all about kings not needing to depend on papal authority. Happily, on this occasion Hincmar somehow knew the Leo text was connected to Bourges, not Rome, after all. How convenient for the wily prelate!

UPDATE & CORRECTION June 2017: The MGH edition of the letters to Pope Hadrian actually prints “Leo ac Romana synodus” here and here. And it turns out that’s what the manuscript, Paris BnF Lat.1594, says on f. 152v. It looks like Delande’s emendation of the text to ‘Bourges’ was a hyper-correction based on his erudition, not on the manuscript.

So, Hincmar was consistent in attributing this text to Pope Leo after all: more proof that Hincmar wasn’t always as devious as some people have thought! (and more evidence I think that he was very closely involved in writing this letter – but that’s a topic for another blog).

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TRANSLATION. Note: some changes from the earlier version of the letter are marked in bold.

Leo, Victor and Eustochius  and the Roman synod sent what follows with their signatures to the bishops Sarmatio, Chariato, Desiderius, and to the priests of all the churches established within the Third Province.

The worldly authorities wished to hold the sacerdotal order in such reverence – even those whom divine power had ordered to be in charge of the earth under the imperial name – that they permitted the right of deciding cases (ius distringendorum) to be conferred to the holy bishops, according to the divine [imperial?] commands (divalia constituta). What was confirmed in the edicts of the ancient law and many times in the general laws, we find in the present time to be trampled upon by many people. For passing over the sacerdotal judgement, they pass to the examination of secular people (examen saecularium).

Therefore it seemed to us that a full punishment should avenge this insult to the holy laws and to our order in the present time, and should establish a formula to be kept in future. We accordingly decided that whoever passes over the bishop of his church and goes to the judgement (disceptatio) of the seculars will be expelled from the holy thresholds and kept away from the heavenly altar. Nor after this decision, which stands by common sentence, should anyone attempt to acquire for himself beyond what is prescribed. So may it happen that those who previously erred should correct themselves with a fitting emendation, and whoever was proven to serve in a clerical office under heavenly observation should know that he is cast out from the clergy if he passes over the judgement of bishops and goes to the authority of secular people.

We wish all individuals and everyone to recognise that what is constituted in the full order of justice and law shall take the effect of total confirmation in all the business of clerics. But if a cleric accuses a layman, let the cleric first demand to be heard by the bishop; then if he sees the layman is opposed to his demand, let him contend in the judgement of the secular moderator, with the permission of his bishop.

Bishop Leo signed
Victorius bishop signed
Eustochius bishop signed.
And all the other bishops who were there signed.

Seeking Worldly Things: the Ninth-Century Constantine the Great

Early medieval western European societies were characterised by an intrinsic tension, sometimes latent but never resolved, between the domains of the secular and the religious, set within a Christian framework – at any rate, that’s the hypothesis of this research project. The legacy of the late Roman Empire was of course essential in establishing this tension, and this blog examines one particularly interesting example of how it did so. [1]

One of the earliest occasions for arguments over the relation between clerics and external authorities was the Donatist controversy. Its origins lay in the imperial persecution of Christians in north Africa in the early fourth century. Hardly had this persecution ended than one group of Christians (known later as Donatists) accused another (who called themselves catholics) of having surrended to it, betraying the Christian faith instead of choosing glorious martyrdom. The arguments became increasingly bitter, with each group electing rival bishops. This escalation meant that after Constantine the Great’s embrace of Christianity, it was difficult for imperial authorities not to get involved.

And involved they duly became. A key source for the early stages of this dispute is a letter from Emperor Constantine himself to the catholic bishops. Stating of the Donatists that “so great a madness persists in them when with incredible arrogance they persuade themselves of things that it is not right either to say or to hear”, the letter makes it pretty clear whose side the emperor was on.[2]

But what made Constantine especially angry was the Donatists’ audacity in having appealed to him as emperor: “… I have discovered that they demand my own judgment! So strong and persevering is the wickedness of these men!” For Constantine, that meant that the Donatists “are seeking worldly things (saecularia), abandoning the heavenly (caelestia)” (a line that is unfortunately omitted in the standard English translation). The clear implication is that the Christian emperor’s judgement is worldly, that of the bishops’ heavenly.

Yet is Constantine’s letter all that it seems? Recently, the German historian Klaus Rosen has suggested not.[3] He points to various textual anomalies – possible dependence on other texts, problems with the wording, and so on – to argue that in reality it’s a forgery. An important plank of his argument is that the letter is preserved only in a single, ninth-century manuscript from Tours (Paris BnF. lat. 1711 – unfortunately not yet digitised), created some half a millennium after the supposed origin of the text it encloses. That’s not actually so unusual – lots of important Roman texts are preserved only in much later copies. But it means that strictly speaking, all we can say for certain is that the letter must have been written after c.314 (the events it describes) and before c. 850 (the date of the manuscript).

Rosen’s argument is chiefly about the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, which he thinks took place later than the current orthodoxy has it: the letter appears to contradict this by suggesting a thoroughly Christian Constantine already in 314, so it’s important for Rosen to show why it can’t be trusted. But he also ventures to connect it to disputes concerning a rather later emperor: Louis the Pious. Rosen draws particular attention to a rubric, probably written in the ninth century, which summarises the letter as follows:

“Where he [Constantine] says that the Donatist party are litigating like outsiders, denouncing, appealing, and wanting the emperor to hear them after the judgement of bishops.”[4]

Rosen never quite says that the entire letter itself was forged in the ninth century, and actually that seems to me somewhat unlikely. But he’s surely right to draw attention to the manuscript transmission, and to the rubric showing that the letter was being read, not just transcribed. In other words, an important context for the letter – and if we are to be hyper-rigorous, the only absolutely secure one – is ninth-century Tours, when it was copied out and interpreted; and that, at a time when (some) bishops were moving towards an attempt to depose one of Constantine’s imperial successors, on the grounds of the superiority of episcopal judgement, just as (Pseudo-)Constantine had set out.

The point is often and rightly made that much of the intellectual heritage of the late Roman empire was preserved thanks to Carolingian scriptoria. But what Rosen and the letter of Constantine encourage us think about is what these scribes themselves thought they were doing. Were they selflessly saving texts for 21st-century historians of late Rome, or were they more concerned with relating this material to their own ninth-century present? The answer is of course probably the latter: and that, I suggest, should give us pause for thought.

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[1] Many thanks to Conrad Leyser for bringing the text on which this blog concentrates to my attention.

[2] Translation in Optatus: Against the Donatists, ed. and tr. M. Edwards (Liverpool, 1997).

[3] Klaus Rosen, Constantin der Grosse, die Christen und der Donatistenstreit 312-314. Eine Untersuchung zu Optatus von Mileve, Appendix V, und zum Verhältnis von Staat und Kirche im 4. Jahrhundert (Paderborn, 2011).

[4] “ubi dixit quia pars Donati quomodo forenses sic litigant ut denuntient et appellent et imperatorem desiderent audire post episcoporum iudicata”.

“Certainly God is angry with us” – a sermon on the Vikings

In a previous blog, I gave some (admittedly lighthearted) advice on how to fend off a vampire attack, culled from a twelfth-century chronicle. In a slightly more serious tone, this blog’s about how to defend against the Vikings.

It’s a truism of the lecture-hall, the textbook and the documentary to point out that the Vikings didn’t write down their side of the story, at least not in the early Middle Ages. But nor did their secular opponents, at least not on a large scale. Instead, we’re dependent on texts produced by their ecclesiastical victims.  Historians mostly draw on monastic annals of one kind or another – the Annals of St-Vaast are a particular favourite for this purpose, filled with terror and horror at the Scandinavian depredations.  In other words, the perspective on the Vikings from the written sources is thoroughly ‘monastic’.

Actually, though, other kinds of texts do survive that shed a somewhat different light. In the course of research into a forthcoming article, I came across a short but very rich sermon by the Paris monk Abbo of St-Germain-des-Pres, written around 900 or so, and was so delighted by it that I’ve made a quick translation (I think the first into any modern language) so more people can read it too:

Abbo’s theme was how to fend off the Viking attacks. What makes his sermon especially interesting is that it seems to be aimed at Carolingian lay aristocrats. This is still a monastic text, then, but it’s one that’s reaching out beyond the monastery, and not written purely or even primarily for monastic consumption.

It’s pitched at a fairly low level, in very straightforward Latin and with an easy-to-follow take-home argument. The main thrust is that the Vikings are a punishment from God for moral and ethical failings: “But how are you able to please God and to have victory, you who always have your hands full of perjury and rapine?”. Abbo draws on Biblical and Roman history to underline the point, and also draws on British history too (contemporary or ancient?) as a warning of what might happen if things don’t improve.

It’s however the last paragraph that’s perhaps the most interesting of all. Despite the general argument that what’s required is moral reform, Abbo concludes not by urging fasting or donations to the church, but by urging his audience to go out to battle:

Do not let your enemies multiply and grow but, as Scripture commends, fight for your homeland (patria), do not fear to die in God’s war (bellum Dei). Certainly if you die there, you will be holy martyrs. And know truly that no man will die before his term, foreknown by God. A man is not able to be killed amongst all the swords, if it is not his time. For it is written, “You have set the limits which they cannot pass”. And therefore enter confidently into the Lord God’s war. And when you enter into God’s war, shout out with a loud voice, “Christ conquers, Christ rules, Christ commands!”.

Abbo here encourages his listeners to go out and face death, with an interesting combination of ideas of holy war and fate: Beowulf meets First Crusade. Whether this kind of pep-talk worked, we can’t of course know. But Frankish armies did win quite a few battles around this time – and Abbo’s sermon is maybe as close to their state of mind as we’re likely ever to get.

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1066 and the other papal banner

In 1066, the Norman Duke William persuaded Pope Alexander II to send him a papal banner, signifying his approval of William’s cross-Channel enterprise (this banner may even be depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, in the image above).

But the fall of Anglo-Saxon England wasn’t the only major upheaval taking place in western Europe that year, and nor was William the only person to be sent such a banner. For the pope sent another one to a man named Erembald, who was involved in a conflict of arguably equal importance in European history to that of the Norman Conquest.

That conflict was taking place in what was probably by this date the largest city in the Latin west, many times larger than London: Milan. Defining precisely what it was about isn’t entirely straightforward, not for lack of sources but because it was complicated. What is clear is that a large group of Milanese inhabitants, led by two minor clerics called Ariald and Landulf Cotta, and later the layman Erembald, were attempting to impose a stricter lifestyle on the wider Milanese clergy, against the Milanese archbishop’s wishes: a ban on marriage, above all.

The emergence of this group, known as the Pataria, led to large-scale civil unrest in Milan – this is the period when the ‘crowd’ starts to make its appearance in western history after a long hiatus, and perhaps the first time when the authorities really lost control of a major political centre. For months – years – no one really controlled this city, with its tens of thousands of inhabitants, at all.

The Patarine movement enjoyed intermittent support from the papacy, which is why Alexander sent Erlembald the banner. After all, one of the objectives of popes in this period was to separate out clergy from the laity more sharply, which was what the Pataria were trying to do too, so the Pataria and the popes had a shared interest. But in 1067, Pope Alexander sent two legates to Milan to try to calm things down, and it’s the edict or Costituzioni (full Latin text available here) they jointly produced that interested me in the episode. That’s because two central clauses concerned legal clerical exemption:

But we set out how one of these [corrupt clerics] should lose his office and benefice for inequity of his order, or variety of sin: we wish every ecclesiastical office to remain in the dignity of its status, and we permit no cleric for the sin of whatever offense of his office in some way offensive to God to come before the judgement of laymen, but rather we prohibit this in every way.


[Let the archbishop] have the power of canonically judging and punishing all his clergy, both in the city and outside it, in all parish churches and chapels, so that safe from secular judgment, they may stand quietly in divine service and the authority of the canons, and devoutly obey their archbishop.

In this respect, then, the views of Pataria and Papacy diverged: the former prioritised moral standing, and saw clerical privilege as potentially protecting sinful clerics; the latter was determined to confer some institutional rigour on the separation between clerics and laity (in fact a Roman council of 1059 had previously made a similar decree). Erlembald seems to have taken it upon himself to pass judgement on clerics; banner or not, for the papacy this was a step too far.

Admittedly, the papal banner had as much or as little impact in Milan as it did at Hastings, and it’s safe to say that the Pataria paid little if any attention to the Costituzioni of 1067: their battles were fought on the streets as much as through pages of solemn canon law. But it’s a reminder – if reminder were needed – that ‘reform’ in the 11th century was a coalition of interests, much like William’s Norman expedition.

It’s a reminder too that not every element of church reform was new – for (as is becoming clearer to me) the legal dimension of a separation between clerics and laymen, crucial to the reforming papacy, was a late antique theme that had been already been revived anew in the 9th century.  To what extent should we think about the Gregorian Reform as a messy culmination of thinking and attitudes developed in the ninth century?

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The village in crisis: the judgement of Courtisols, 847

I write this blog on my way back from an inspiring workshop held in Vienna on early medieval local identities (the programme is online here). A published volume is in preparation, but to whet your appetite, I’ve taken advantage of free airport wifi to provide a rough English translation of a text that was presented there by Steffen Patzold – an account of a trial at the French village of Courtisols. (You can read a recent discussion of it by Josiane Barbier in the book on Hincmar that Rachel Stone and I edited).

The text records how some residents of this early medieval village near Chalons-sur-Marne claimed to be free, but lost their case when a considerable number of their neighbours testified against them in court. It’s a great example of how an early medieval village community could be split down the middle by the intervention of a lord (in this case Archbishop Hincmar) – or, from a different perspective, how factions within a village could harness the power of the lord for their own purposes (who, after all, had started the rumour about the upstarts’ original unfreedom?).

The judgment of Courtisols, 13 May 847

“On the command of Archbishop HINCMAR, his legates – that is Sigloard the priest and head of the school of the holy church of Rheims, and the noble Dodilo vassalus of the bishop – came to Courtisols. Sitting at the public court, and investigating the justice of Saint Remi and of the already mentioned lord [Hincmar], they heard a rumour [sonus] about the mancipia[1] whose names are given below, and about their genealogy: that they rightly ought to be servi and ancillae,[2] because their grandmothers Berta and Avila had been bought by the lord’s price. The above-mentioned legates, when they heard this, diligently looked into the matter.

These are the names of those who were present and questioned: Grimold, Warmher, Leuthad, Ostrold, Adelard, Ivoia, and the daughter Hildiardis.[3] They said in response “That is not so, for we ought to be free by birth”.

The already mentioned legates asked if there was anyone there who knew the truth of this matter or who wanted to prove it. Then very old witnesses came forward, whose names are these: Hardier, Tedic, Odelmar, Sorulf, Gisinbrand, Gifard, Teuderic.[4] And they testified that their origin had been bought by the lord’s price, and that they ought by justice and law more to be servi and ancillae than free men and free women.

Then the legates asked if the witnesses against them were telling the truth. They [the mancipia] saw and accepted the truth and proof of the matter, and at once re-entrusted themselves, and re-pledged the service that had been unjustly held back and neglected for so many days, through the judgement of the scabini[5], whose names are these: Geimfrid, Ursold, Frederic, Urslaud, Hroderaus, Herleher, Ratbert, Gislehard.

ENACTED in Courtisols on the 4th Ides of May in the public court, in the sixth year of the reign of the glorious King Charles; and in the third year of the rule of Archbishop Hincmar of the holy see of Reims.

Sign: I Sigloard the priest was present and subscribed with my own hand to all these truthful matters. I Heronod the chancellor signed. I Dodilo signed with my own hand. Sign of Leidrad the monk. Sign of Adroin the mayor. Sign of Gozfred the advocate. Sign of Flotgis. Sign of Guntio. Sign of Betto. Sign of Rigfred. Sign of Urinus. Sign of Alacramn, Altiaud, Balsmus, Balthard, Fredemar, Tuehtar, Atuhar, Geroard, Wido, Righard, Amalhad, Rafold, Alter, Amalbert.[6] I Hairoald the chancellor authorised and signed.

The above mentioned witnesses also proved that Teutbert and Blithelm were by origin servi, and they repledged their service in that court meeting, by the judgement of the scabini whose names are written above.”


[1] Mancipia is a term that generally means ‘unfree people’, and that would traditionally be translated as ‘slaves’. In property transfer records, mancipia are listed as part of an estate’s assets, along with livestock and agricultural infrastructure.

[2] Ie, male and female slaves/servants.

[3] These people are listed in the estate survey for Courtisols that was made around the same time (in the polyptych of St-Remi). It is to be noted that many of them were joint tenants of holdings along with people of free status, which may well be why they claimed that they were free too.

[4] All these witnesses were legally-free inhabitants of Courtisols.

[5] Scabini were residents who enjoyed a special status: something like jurors or local councillors.

[6] Most of these names were other residents of Courtisols.

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