Category Archives: church

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)

‘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.

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

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.

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 secular university?

The secular university?

A recent article for the Times Higher Education Supplement calling on universities to consider religion as a diversity issue brought a furious response from one reader:

In my view a university is a secular place of learning. If you want attention paid to your religion you should go to a theological college. It is not a university’s job to pander to superstition. Religion, unlike race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, is a choice and if you can’t modify your choice to cater for the university’s rules you should go elsewhere.

The comment interprets “secular” in the sense of excluding religion, rather than of a religiously neutral arena. It also displays little historical awareness: the university as a “secular” space is a relatively new phenomenon. In England, only after more than 600 years of universities did the first religiously neutral university appear, with the foundation of University College London. But rather than trace the overall history of the secular university, I instead want to use my own personal history to illustrate the difficulties of the concept.

In 1983, aged 18, I went to St Anne’s College, Oxford to study mathematics. During term-time, I spent substantial portions of the week in the lecture theatres at the old Mathematical Institute. Lectures were the main form of teaching mathematics and regular attendance at them was expected and required in order to do well.

But my time at Oxford was also expanding my experience in other ways. For the first time, I was exploring my Christian faith independently, away from the limits of attending the churches where my father was rector. I came to follow a regular routine on Sundays; the college Christian union met for breakfast and then parties of us walked down to the main student churches. In my case, I went to St Aldate’s, and after a long service (the morning service averaged about 90 minutes), then walked back to St Anne’s in time for lunch.

I was aware that religious commitment was out of fashion, so I was interested when I read an article in one of the student newspapers which quoted a mathematics student, Danielle, whom I knew slightly. She was a religious Jew, something that in my naivety I hadn’t realised, and she talked about observing the Sabbath, for example by not using her bicycle on that day. Later in the year, when we received the thick booklet with Oxford’s examination decrees and regulations, I noticed that there were provisions for Jewish students who felt unable to take examinations on the Sabbath to sit them at another time and presumed that such measures acknowledged the existence of students such as Danielle.

Fifteen years later, in 1998, I was off to Cambridge, this time to study for a master’s degree in medieval history. But as I looked at the general lecture lists, I noticed something odd about the mathematics lectures: some of them were held on Saturdays. Cambridge, like Oxford, also holds some exams on Saturdays. On their website, I can find information on special arrangements for examinations for disabled students, but not Jewish ones. A mathematics student like Danielle might have to make difficult choices if she went to Cambridge rather than Oxford.

So is Oxford “pandering to superstition”, while Cambridge is not? The question is misleading, unless you bring into the equation not only Danielle’s experience, but mine. As a Christian, every British university I’ve ever been to is set up to observe my main holy days. If they hadn’t been and I’d been expected to attend lectures on Sundays, I don’t know what I would have decided to do. Either my beliefs or my mathematical training would have had to suffer, and the suggestion that I should simply “go to a theological college” would also have excluded me from the highest level of academic education. Unlike Danielle, however, I didn’t have to make such choices, since I belong to the historically dominant religion of Britain.

The university that excludes religion then, is finally a myth, since it is inevitably embedded within wider systems that have already determined religious or non-religious parameters of acceptable behaviour. Making a university secular in the sense of religiously neutral, meanwhile, remains a difficult proposition; an awareness of the historical background is likely to be essential to doing so successfully.

The image is of Penrose tiling outside the Andrew Wiles Building, where the Mathematical Institute is now based in Oxford

Policing periodisation; or, the Carolingian poverty debate

When historians point out that something familiar in later periods was attested, and maybe quite normal, in the period they study too, they can find themselves accused of ‘precursorism’ – that is, the mechanical assertion that the antecedents of something really lie in a more distant past, in an anachronistic way (e.g. claiming that the Middle Ages were ‘democratic’, etc.). Sometimes the charge may be justified, but we should be careful that it isn’t being used simply as a means of discounting awkward evidence, evidence that poses a healthy challenge to conventional historical orthodoxies: that it’s not just policing periodisation, so to speak.

Here’s a case in point. Christianity was ambivalent about personal wealth from the very earliest days (as recently discussed by Peter Brown), but it’s generally agreed that calls for the medieval Church as an institution to return to a state of poverty only came somewhat later. The conventional chronology would suggest that this began in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with various heretical movements, developed in the Franciscan poverty debates of the thirteenth century, and culminated in the critiques expressed in the Reformation. That chronology implies these calls were a response to the growth in wealth, autonomy and self-consciousness of the post-Gregorian Church of the eleventh century. After all, as a thousand textbooks repeat, “there was no separation of State and Church in Charlemagne’s empire”, and so criticism of this kind wasn’t really thinkable earlier.[1]

However, a text in a manuscript from Auxerre suggests that it’d be worth rethinking some of these assumptions. I make no claim to have discovered this text myself (alas), which was edited by Guy Lobrichon in 2012, but it seems to me to be interesting enough to bring to the attention of a wider anglophone audience. It’s a treatise written in response to unnamed critics who were apparently pointing out that there is no biblical justification for a property-owning Church. At 30 pages long, it’s much too long to translate here in its entirety, but here’s a sample in English.

  1. There are many within the holy Church who assert in different ways but with a single aim that it [the Church] ought not to have accepted property or slaves or other gifts from the faithful, or if accepted, that it ought not to keep them. And they look in the holy scriptures for an authority justifying that the faithful should rationally have given these things, or the leaders of the churches should have accepted them, or their successors should have kept them without guilt. They say that the Church ought to be content with the poverty of apostolic times. But if that is so, then it will have the same small size [of those times] too. And just as the religious order has grown through the accumulation of time, so gradually the scarcity of the starting point will return …
  2. It is clear to all those considering it carefully, how in the Old and the New Testament the status religionis grew according to the words of the holy lesson. For Abel is read to have taken gifts to the Lord, but not to have put them on an altar. However Noah, growing a little further in religion, built an altar and made a sacrifice to the Lord from all his unstained flock…
  3. And whoever thinks that he can usurp church property consecrated to God and keep it and turn it to his own uses with impunity, let him be warned by the punishment of Achan who brought about a great disturbance of the people of Israel and a terrible fate for himself and his household, because he usurped things that had been consecrated to the Lord….”

As Lobrichon says in his excellent discussion, we might believe that we are reading a polemicist attacking the Waldensians or Francis of Assisi: were it not that the manuscript is from the ninth century.

Now, it can be doubtless be argued that the treatise is exceptional and unrepresentative. So it may be. Still, somebody (probably in Burgundy) put a great deal of effort into it, and painstakingly trawled through the Bible to find passages that supported his point (unless he relied on an already existing compendium, which is also possible). Perhaps he made up a debate with non-existent people – even so, the question of institutional poverty had crossed his mind.

To suggest on the basis of this text alone that there was a ‘Carolingian poverty debate’ comparable to that of the Franciscans would be precursorism, to be sure. Yet it surely also matters that people were thinking about what poverty meant, and whether the institutional church should own property, of what kind and how much, long before St Francis stripped off in Assisi, and even long before Pope Gregory VII started firing off his remarkable letters. If that poses a problem to conventional chronologies, then that’s something we need to think about, and not ignore.

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[1] This quotation is in fact drawn from Hoppenbrouwers and Blockmans’ Introduction to Medieval Europe, but it’s a typical sentiment to be found in many general textbooks of medieval Europe (especially those written by later medievalists!).