Category Archives: Byzantium

A Carolingian view of clerical marriage

When did priests stop being allowed to marry in medieval western Europe? The question might seem recondite, but it’s actually of enormous importance. The prohibition of clerical marriage separated out priests from the laity in a very clear and obvious way, in parallel to their exemption from processes of secular justice (one of the focuses of my research at the moment). It meant that they couldn’t legally have heirs, which had a big impact on wider family strategies; and it was associated with changes in masculinity, too.

Establishing when this happened is however surprisingly difficult. The key texts are often ambiguous. And of course, for the early Middle Ages we don’t have enough evidence to be able to say for certain exactly what proportion of priests were married (though recent research on local priests by Julia Barrow and a team led by Steffen Patzold and Carine van Rhijn has moved things on here a lot).

Nevertheless, many historians would suggest that the history goes something like this. Early church councils were keen for clerics in general (and bishops in particular) to refrain from illicit sexual activity, and ideally from all sexual activity. But as good householders, it was expected that these leaders would be married men: they merely had to be continent after their ordination. That tradition was maintained for centuries – the classic illustration is that Pope Hadrian II (d. 872) was a married man, and no one at the time batted an eyelid.  Only in the eleventh century did reformers, seeking to create an autonomous church free from secular control, develop a novel insistence on clerical celibacy (as opposed to merely clerical continence within marriage), leading to a formal legal prohibition in the 12th century.

In many ways this is a convincing and accurate narrative. Yet there are two problems. The first is that the narrative perhaps doesn’t take sufficiently into account regional diversity in the early Middle Ages. Ninth-century Italian clerics, in particular, seem to have treated clerical careers very differently from their Frankish colleagues, as Rachel Stone has shown – so we can’t necessarily generalise from the case of Pope Hadrian.

Perhaps an even bigger problem though is that we tend to approach the late antique councils directly, relying on the most recent editions and the sharpest-sighted interpretations to work out what the church fathers originally had in mind. That’s obviously a good thing. But it’s not necessarily how early medieval authors read them.

Here’s a case in point (brought to my attention by Helen Parish’s excellent book). In the late 860s, Pope Nicholas I and Photius the Patriarch of Constantinople became caught up in a fierce argument. It ultimately revolved around about the extent of papal authority, but as part of this argument, a Byzantine letter began to circulate that criticised western church customs. When he heard about this, Pope Nicholas called for Frankish backup. Of the several treatises that were written in response, perhaps the most interesting for our purposes is that written by Ratramnus of Corbie in 867, known as the Contra Graecorum opposita.

Ratramnus was a noted Carolingian intellectual who remains understudied, overshadowed by his (much less sympathetic) fellow monk Radbert. This work of his is no exception, and it languishes in an inadequate 18th-century edition to this day. Yet it’s of considerable interest for the relatively level-headed defence of western customs that occupies most of its fourth book (and Ratramnus’s emphasis on the western/eastern (orientalis/occidentialis) distinction is incidentally quite striking).

Ratramnus argues for instance that whether clerics shaved their beards (as the Romans did) or whether they didn’t (like the Byzantines) was just a matter of local custom, not of doctrine. There was a ritual logic to doing things the way people did in the western churches, but he didn’t think the Byzantines should necessarily follow suit. In the end it wasn’t that important.

On clerical marriage, however, Ratramnus was more intransigeant. He had heard that the Byzantines labelled the Roman church as anti-marriage because they would not let their priests marry. Nonsense, said Ratramnus – the Apostle Paul wasn’t married, yet that hadn’t stopped him telling people that they ought to marry.

But, argued Ratramnus, it was simply inappropriate for priests to  marry, since they would inevitably become distracted by trying to please their wives rather than God (an indication perhaps of a typically Carolingian companionate view of marriage). And there was also the problem of ritual pollution, though Ratramnus seems much less bothered by this, consistent with his other work.

Not content with leaving matters there,  Ratramnus declared that this was in fact the traditional position, and he cited the Council of Nicaea of 325 to prove his point. Now, modern scholars are unanimous that the Council of Nicaea did not ban clerics from being married. But that’s not how Ratramnus seems to interpret the key canon, canon 4. This canon forbade priests from cohabiting with women except for close family members. It doesn’t mention wives – but in a fascinating short passage (translated below), Ratramnus uses common sense to argue that this was implied.

Was Ratramnus arguing that priests once ordained should not marry, or that they should be actually not be married at all? Here there’s a touch of perhaps deliberate ambiguity to the Latin. He says that priests shouldn’t  ‘matrimonia sortiri’,  which implies an act of marrying. But he also says that uxoria copula (lit: ‘wifely bond/union’) is forbidden to priests. Now, this could in principle mean sexual contact – but the other occasions on which Ratramnus uses this phrase strongly suggest he meant the state of being married. [1]

In arguing that the Nicene Fathers prohibited priests from being married, Ratramnus was almost certainly misrepresenting the Nicene council’s original intentions. But in a sense, that’s irrelevant. What matters is that for this ninth-century author, clerical celibacy was baked into the early church decisions – and moreover that this was a key factor in separating the laity from the priests.[2]

Historians working on clerical celibacy and other related issues naturally tend to focus on new and dramatic texts produced in the eleventh century. But to what extent had the groundwork for these new texts already been laid by subtle, and much harder to discern, changes in how pre-existing texts were interpreted?

TRANSLATION: Ratramnus of Corbie, Contra Graecorum opposita, Book IV, c.6 (PL 121, 329, based on D’Achery’s Spicilegium) – extract (please note this is just a provisional translation, & suggestions for improvements are welcome).

But let us come to the ecclesiastical decrees, by which we may understand what they [the maiores] wished to decide about this. In the Council of Nicaea held under Emperor Constantine I, it was thus decided by 380 bishops: “The great synod stringently decreed that it was not permissible for a bishop, priest or deacon, or absolutely anyone else in the clergy, to have a woman living in (mulier subintroducta): except perhaps his mother, or sister, or aunt, or those women who escape suspicion”.

Let these Constantinopolitan emperors hear this, and judge whether those grades this canon concerns ought to obtain marriage (matrimonia sortiri) – grades to whom it is not permitted to cohabit with women, except only those persons whom no suspicion can stain. For whoever marries (duxerit) a wife is unable not to have other women in the household too apart from his wife, women through whom wifely necessity and domestic business (domestica cura) may be supplemented. In truth where the living-in (subintroductio) of all women is forbidden, except for those persons who lack all suspicion, it is clear that a wifely union (uxoria copula) is also forbidden, since this can in no way happen without contact (accessio) with other women.[3]


[1] Earlier in the passage, R. wrote that Paul “significat se caelibem esse, nec uxoris copula detineri” – ie, that he was not married. Cf. his comment re: the 862 council of Aachen here:  “quod autem opponitur non fuisse copulam illam legitimum conubium”

[2] nec inter laicos et sacri altaris ministros ullam differentiam consistere.

[3] Sed veniamus ad ecclesiastica tandem decreta, quo cognoscamus quid decernere super his maluerint. In Nicaeno concilio sub Constantino imperatore primo per trecentos octodecim episcopos sic decernitur: «Interdixit per omnia magna synodus, non episcopo, non presbytero, non diacono, nec alicui omnino qui in clero est, licere subintroductam habere mulierem; nisi forte matrem, aut sororem, aut amitam, vel eas tantum personas quae suspiciones effugiunt.» Audiant haec Constantinopoleos imperatores, et judicent, an debeant isti gradus, super quibus hoc capitulo decernitur, matrimonia sortiri, quibus non licet mulieribus cohabitare, nisi solummodo personis illis quas nulla suspicio possit commaculare. Nam quisquis uxorem duxerit, non potest praeter uxorem alias etiam mulieres in domo non habere, quibus uxoria necessitas, et cura domestica suppleatur. Ubi vero cunctarum interdicitur subintroductio feminarum, praeter omnino personas quae careant omni suspicione, manifestum est quod interdicatur etiam uxoria pariter copula, quae nullo modo potest fieri sine reliquarum accessione feminarum.

Image: Utrecht Psalter (Psalm 52)

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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