Category Archives: church

‘Giving for the sake of the good’: the defence of simony and intellectual plurality in eleventh-century Europe

Here’s a ‘research postcard’ hastily written amidst the turmoils of term – some early reflections on a topic I’m hoping to work on more in future, prompted by the opportunity to present at a department seminar on the theme of intellectual plurality.

Eleventh-century Europe was not short of big issues, but one of the biggest of the lot was simony. That’s the term given to the illicit purchase of ecclesiastical office, i.e. paying to become a priest or a bishop, or conversely selling the roles. The involvement of money in advancement became a hot topic in the church centuries before it was considered controversial in secular contexts, where state offices were openly and unproblematically trafficked into the early modern period. And the eleventh century played a special role in this development. Though simony was an old concept, it wasn’t until the eleventh century that the noun itself, “simony”, named after Simon Magus in the bible, was coined. That makes the eleventh century a pivotal period in the deep history of European corruption.

In the abundant eleventh-century arguments about simony, it can be hard to find traces of intellectual pluralism. There were plenty of debates, but they mostly concerned the consequences of simony rather than its nature: these were debates about just how bad simony was, not debates about whether it was actually bad. We do have some reported defences of simony and simoniac practices, but these defences are almost always embedded within criticism of the practice: critics imagining how wicked simoniacs might defend themselves, for instance by sneakily distinguishing between the office and the revenues that came with the office, before the critics go on to demolish these flimsy arguments with ease and panache.[1]

In a way, this makes the eleventh-century simony crisis hard to explain. If everyone agreed simony was wrong, why was it so commonly practised, and so hard to eradicate? There are lots of answers to this, but one is double-think. Corruption is after all famously subjective in all its forms. My little token of appreciation is your underhand bribe; my hint that you might show some gratitude for my help is your shameless extortion. As we all know from experience, it’s perfectly possible for people to employ double standards – to keep doing something that we would loudly condemn if we saw others doing it.

But was that all there was to it? Another potential explanation is suggested by one text – and only one. It survives in just a single manuscript, kept in the library established by Nicholas of Cusa in the tiny town of Kues in Germany, where it’s shelved as Codex Cusanus 52. The text itself is written on a single fragile parchment leaf which was originally an independent sheet, only later bound into this manuscript.[2] This is a work that is preserved by the skin of its teeth. And it is unique in apparently representing a genuine and sincere argument made in favour of simony: in favour, in other words, of paying for clerical office.

The treatise, perhaps intended as a sermon, was written by an educated cleric, maybe around the 1080s, and the surviving copy is not much later, depending on how one assesses the palaeography (see helpful comments from Twitterstorians here, with a broad consensus on c. 1100 – possibly earlier, maybe Italian). I won’t rehearse all the treatise’s arguments now; it’s enough to say that its basic emphasis is on intention. It’s not bad to pay for office if it’s done for good reasons: for instance, to stop someone really terrible from taking the post instead, or to give something back to the church in return for all the revenues that one receives as a consequence of promotion. As the text says, ‘Perhaps foolishly, we think that it is possible to give money for consecration without blame’ (…pro consecratione interdum pecuniam sine culpa dari posse forsitan stulte putamus). And it illustrates this point with an analogy. To defend a flock of sheep from wolves, one needs a staff or a stick: what does it matter exactly how one acquires the stick, provided one intends to use it well, and to keep the wolves away from Christ’s sheep? A stick that you’ve paid money for hurts the wolf just as much. In short (to quote the treatise), “To give for the sake of good is always good’ (dare causa boni semper bonum sit).

So, what to make of this unique text? Although it was edited in 1905 by Siegmund Hellmann, it’s been little studied (probably because it wasn’t included in the main body of simony materials which had been published a decade earlier); indeed it still doesn’t have a generally acknowledged name or title. Is it an intellectual exercise, an early example of the kinds of scholastic practice arguments designed to improve scholars’ logic and rhetoric – in other words, not to be taken at face value? Or does it rather suggest that serious arguments in defence of simony were sometimes made, even if they have been obscured by archiving pressures, which tended over time to weed out works making uncomfortable arguments? (along similar lines to works by people later judged heretical, which stood fairly little chance of being preserved, at least from this distant period).

I need to do more work on this. But at the moment, I’d incline towards the latter interpretation, because it helps explain the tenacity of simony. As Roman Deutinger suggests, we can understand better why simony was so difficult to eliminate if there were people resisting the wave of condemnation, in reasonably sophisticated ways, even if their line of argument did not in the end carry the day. In other words, perhaps simony’s persistence was not just the product of double-think or double-standards, or of the challenge of shifting economic realities, but of genuine intellectual plurality, even though that diversity of views has now become very hard to hear amidst the din of the polemics that triumphed.

By implication, I’d argue the treatise suggests that the eventual hegemony of now common-place assumptions about corruption and office in the European context was contingent. The acceptance that paying for office is unacceptable, which eventually crept into secular life too, wasn’t inevitable or pre-ordained, but the result of arguments and debate. Perhaps we didn’t need to read an eleventh-century treatise to realise that, but it’s good to be reminded.


[1] The best analysis of these defences is Roman Deutinger, ‘Simonisten rechtfertigen sich: mittelalterliche Antworten auf den Vorwurf der Simonie’, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 120:2 (2009 ), pp. 145-159. I am grateful to Herr Deutinger for sharing his article.

[2] Codex Cusanus 52 (Kues). On the manuscript, see Becker, Benediktinerabtei St. Eucharius, who associates the ms with St Eucharius of Trier (though without discussing this particular inserted page).

CSI Carantania

A post by Rachel Stone

At some point in the mid-ninth century an auxiliary bishop called Osbald had a serious problem with a turbulent priest in Carantania (later the duchy of Carinthia in southern Austria and northern Slovenia). Osbald was told to investigate whether or not this priest was responsible for the death of a deacon. We don’t know the outcome, but a look now at this very, very cold case is revealing about justice and clerics in the early Middle Ages.

All we know about this case comes from part of a letter by Pope Nicholas I (which dates it to 858-867). The original letter does not survive, but an excerpt from it is included in later canon law collections. That means that we don’t know why Osbald had probably written directly to the Pope rather than to his superior, the Archbishop of Salzburg. Osbald, whose name suggests Anglo-Saxon origins, was a chorbishop, an additional subordinate bishop helping to administer the vast diocese of Salzburg. (As an indication of its size, the later suffragan diocese covering Carantania/Carinthia had its first seat at Gurk, 120 miles away from Salzburg).

Pope Nicholas’ reply, however, demanded the involvement not only of the far-off Archbishop of Salzburg, but a considerably wider group of ecclesiastics. Here’s the first part of the surviving text:

Let your sanctity apply yourself to persuading your bishop to unite together with himself the canonical number of colleagues, that is six brothers and fellow-bishops from neighbouring provinces, and with them deciding, joined to you, diligently apply yourselves to investigating and take care to examine carefully, with all striving, in order that you able to find whether the same deacon, who it is reported has died, died from beating/striking (percussio) by the priest named now [elsewhere in the letter] or from breaking his neck.

This had now turned into a complex detective and legal operation, which probably also involved some difficult logistics. So why had Osbald got the Pope involved in the first place and why was all this investigation needed to work out the deacon’s cause of death? Hints of an answer come in the next section of Nicholas’ letter:

And if indeed he was not beaten to death (ad mortem percussus est) by the aforementioned priest, but falling from his horse, died from a broken neck, according to your judgement announce a corresponding penance for the priest beating/striking recklessly: and let him be suspended for some time from the solemnities of mass. After this he should once more be returned to priestly office.

But if that deacon truly died from whatever beating/striking by that priest, we decree that this one is for no reason to minister in a priestly way, since even if he did not have the wish to kill, yet the fury and indignation by which a motion [of his] produced those deadly things, are to curbed in many ways in everyone, but especially in God’s ministers, and to be condemned everywhere.

This suggests that the case may have involved what modern lawyers would describe as a chain of causation. The question may have been not simply whether the deacon had died from falling off his horse, but whether the priest’s attack had led to that fall in some way. Many possible scenarios can be imagined here (and imagination is all we can go on, given the lack of detail). Had the deacon already been on horseback when a blow had disrupted his control of his horse? Had he jumped on a horse (perhaps not his own) and ridden away hastily to escape further violence from the priest?

Or had the priest’s attack happened at some earlier point, leaving the deacon suffering longer-term ill effects, perhaps via the aftereffects of concussion or even brain damage? As a possible parallel, in 864, Charles, the son of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald was struck in the head with a sword by a friend during some horseplay. He suffered from fits as a result and died a year later (Annales Bertiniani, 864, 865). The verb used to describe Charles’ injuring (percutio) is the same one used for the priest’s attack on the deacon; it’s not therefore possible to be sure whether the priest had inflicted a single blow or a sustained beating.

It’s unlikely that Osbald and the other bishops were able to investigate the case thoroughly and discover the truth, in the way that Nicholas wanted. Even if there had been witnesses to the attack, it would have been extremely difficult to get them to Salzburg, the most likely place for any episcopal judgement to take place. And without witnesses or forensic evidence, the only testimony available would have been from the priest himself. Dead deacons tell no tales.

Our modern categories of criminal law/civil law/church law or law as against penance are inadequate for describing this case. We don’t know whether the priest had paid wergild for the deacon’s death or not. There’s no mention of it in the portion of the letter that survives, but any such act wouldn’t necessarily have decided the issue for church leaders. What both Pope Nicholas and Osbald were concerned about was a complex blend of the subjective issues of the priest’s intentions and motivation and the objective effects of his acts, concerns common to many different legal and penitential systems.

But there’s a final twist to this story that takes it beyond purely legal courts and penitential judgements. Nicholas ends the surviving section of the letter with a judgement on a slightly different aspect:

But if indeed the priest should perhaps make clear to Your Zealousness that he is guilty (noxius), we order that such a benefice should be conceded by his church to him, from which he and his (et ipse et sui) may be able to have enough compensation for their maintenance.

This looks at first sight like some incongruous form of plea-bargaining: why should a guilty man be rewarded? One canonical collection has the priest making clear that he is obnoxius (which could mean either “guilty” or “submissive/compliant”). The original editor, however, preferred noxius and I think he’s right.

It’s instructive here to bring in a second letter that Nicholas sent in response to another question from Osbald. This question was whether clerics who had killed a pagan in self-defence should be allowed to remain in their current grade or advance to a higher one. Nicholas’ response was firmly worded. He gave no-one licence to kill and he allowed no “soldier of Christ” (miles Christi) to defend himself other than the way Christ had defended himself, i.e. no resistance was allowed. If a cleric of the rank of priest or above should kill a pagan, the Pope advised him to consider giving up his office, rather than risking his soul. (It is interesting that Nicholas advises this but does not specifically decree it as a canon that must be followed).

Carantania was on the edge of east Francia; it was a region where potentially dangerous pagans might well be found. It was also a region undergoing missionary activity throughout the ninth century, carried out by missions that were sometimes rivals: operations subject to the Catholic dioceses of Salzburg and Passau and also slightly later efforts by the Byzantine missionaries SS. Cyril and Methodius. A text from the 870s called the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum stressed the rights of Salzburg and included a reference to Osbald’s earlier missionary work.

In this missionary context, we need to consider the existence of another “court”: the court of public opinion. Whatever the details of the priest’s attack on the deacon, he was hardly setting a good example for a barely Christianised population, any more than priests who had shed the blood of pagans even in self-defence were. Nicholas had harsh words for priests who had killed in self-defence, but he did not specifically attempt to remove them from office. The suspicion must be that the pope similarly hoped that Osbald might be able to “buy off” the angry priest from his office, whose scandalous behaviour might otherwise offend or deter new converts. It is possible that, as happened frequently in other regions, the priest was himself from a prominent local family. The passing reference made to the priest’s dependents might indicate a married man, but it might also indicate a priest rich enough to own unfree people personally.

This cold case may therefore end by revealing further injustice, but it reflects the realities of the period. Any attempt by the church authorities to deal with a badly-behaved “turbulent priest” in the early Middle Ages always had to consider whether more harm than good to the church’s reputation could result from a disciplinary process.

***

Text of Nicholas’ letter(s) from MGH Epistolae 6, pp. 660-661:

(Although they are treated as part of one letter (no. 142) in the MGH edition, the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum refers to two letters sent by Nicholas to Osbald, so I have regarded them as separate).

(1) Studeat sanctitas tua persuadere episcopo tuo sibi canonicum sociare numerum collegarum, id est sex ex vicinis provinciis fratres et coepiscopos suos; quibus tecum iunctis, et decernentibus diligenter investigare, et omni annisu scrutari procurate, quatinus invenire valeatis utrum percussione iam nominati presbyteri, an cervicis fractione idem diaconus, ut fertur, extinctus est.

Et si quidem a saepefato presbytero non ad mortem percussus est, sed ex equo cadens cervice fracta interiit, secundum arbitrium vestrum pro percussione incaute agenti presbytero paenitentiam competentem indicate, et aliquanto tempore a missarum solempniis suspendatur, denuo ad sacerdotale post haec rediturus officium.

Quodsi veraciter qualicumque percussione istius presbyteri ille mortuus est diaconus, nulla hunc ratione ministrare sacerdotis more decernimus, quoniam, etsi voluntatem occidendi non habuit, furor tamen et indignatio ex quibus motio illa mortifera prodiit, in omnibus, sed praecipue in Dei ministris multipliciter inhibentur, atque ubique dampnantur.

Verum si presbyter adeo vestro studio noxius forte claruerit, praecipimus, ut tale beneficium sibi ecclesiae suae concedatur, quo et ipse et sui sufficiens possint habere suae sustentationis solacium.

(2) De his clericis pro quibus consuluisti, scilicet qui se defendendo paganum occiderunt, si postea per paenitentiam emundati possint ad pristinum gradum redire aut ad altiorem ascendere, scito nos nullam occasionem dare, nec ullam tribuere licentiam eis quemlibet hominem quolibet modo occidendi.

Non igitur licentiam damus militibus Christi aliter se defendere quam ipse in se monstravit Christus, illis dumtaxat, qui clericatus funguntur officio quique familiarius in castris militantur eis, nec occidendi eis prorsus tribuimus facultatem. Verum si contigerit, et clericus sacerdotalis ordinis saltem paganum occiderit, multum sibi consulit, si ab officio sacerdotali recesserit, satiusque est, illi in hac vita Domino sub inferiori habitu inreprehensibiliter famulari, quam alte indebite appetendo dampnabiliter in profundum dimergi.  

“Is not every Christian emperor also a priest?”

Looking back from the twenty-first century, we naturally tend to arrange the past into different sections. The historians who work on late ninth-century Carolingian Francia, for instance, find themselves in a different field from those who work on the seventh-century Roman Empire. And understandably so, since the political and cultural set-up of these societies were quite distinct.

Often, however, medieval texts moved across time and space in ways that challenge these subdivisions, layering different histories upon one another. A good example is a work in Greek about the imperial trial in 655 of the firebrand monk Maximus the Confessor. This text, known as the Relatio Motionis, was written by sympathisers of Maximus, and it has some remarkably clear and unequivocal statements about the secular status of the emperor.

For instance, it records that Maximus was challenged with the question ‘Is not every Christian emperor also a priest?’. To this Maximus calmly explained that the answer was: ‘No, he is not. For he does not stand by the altar, nor does he lift up the bread after it has been sanctified, saying Holy of Holies. He does not baptize, nor does he create the chrism, nor does he make bishops or priests or deacons, nor anoint churches, nor does he carry the signs of priesthood, that is the pallium and the Gospels, although he does wear the signs of empire, the crown and the purple.’ So much for Caesaropapism.

Now, the Relatio Motionis is usually read as evidence for debates in seventh-century Byzantium, which it surely is. Yet the Greek account of Maximus’s trial was also translated into Latin in ninth-century Rome by a well-known cleric named Anastasius the Librarian. Moreover, the only surviving manuscript of this translation – Paris BnF. Lat. 5095 – was made not in Rome, but in ninth-century Francia.

This manuscript has usually been evaluated as useful evidence firstly for reconstructing Maximus’s original statements and secondly for understanding Anastasius’s translation campaign, but as always in medieval history, it’s worth looking at manuscripts and not just through them. In a recent article, I’ve argued that Paris 5095 was copied at the behest of Bishop Hincmar of Laon, who was interested in Maximus’s persecution by rulers, and how he handled it. Hincmar had been deposed as bishop by King Charles the Bald in 871, but did not gracefully accept his new circumstances and settle into retirement. Instead he fought against his deposition, accusing Charles the Bald of having acted tyrannically. I argued that the Paris 5095 manuscript, including the trial of Maximus the Confessor, was part of the bishop’s efforts to stage a come-back, which resulted in qualified success in 878.

In other words, a Latin translation made in Rome of a Greek text was being read with great interest in Francia in the 870s, as part of debates over the nature of Carolingian kingship and its relation to the church. To what extent can and should we therefore read the Latin Maximus as a Carolingian text, as well as a Roman and indeed Byzantine one?

For a fuller version of this argument (with references to further reading), see C. West, ‘”And how, if you are a Christian, can you hate the emperor?” Reading a Seventh-Century Scandal in Carolingian Francia’, in Karina Kellermann, Alheydis Plassmann and Christian Schwermann, eds., Criticising the Ruler in pre-modern societies – possibilities, chances and methods (Bonn, 2019), 411-430: open access version https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:27953/

Hincmar’s trial by ordeal? An unpublished text

Back in 2016, I published an English translation of a ninth-century ‘trial by cold water’ liturgy on this blog. That text came from a now lost manuscript of St-Remi of Reims, which was enough for me to suggest a possible connection with Hincmar of Reims, who we know was keen on the trial by ordeal (he discusses it extensively in De Divortio).

However, in 2017 I re-read an article by Rudolf Pokorny which drew my attention to an early modern manuscript now in Paris, shelved as Collection Duchesne 64. Duchesne 64 includes a table of contents and a partial transcription of another lost medieval manuscript, from Liege, which mostly contained Hincmar’s own works. Pokorny noted that Duchesne 64’s transcription included a trial by ordeal liturgy, but he didn’t edit it in his article. In 2019 I finally got round to looking up the ordeal copied in Duchesne 64, which is online thanks to the amazing Gallica, and gave a paper about it in St Andrews at the SAIMS grad conference.

There are some good reasons for supposing that Hincmar might have been involved in putting this liturgy together (though it’s slightly different from the version from the lost St-Remi manuscript). I’m still planning to work more on this text, and to set it in the context of Hincmar’s thinking about the ordeal, but since that probably won’t happen this summer, I thought I’d share my re-transcription of the Latin in the meantime. Thanks to Giorgia Vocino for advice on some of the most testing bits of Andre Duchesne’s seventeenth-century handwriting; there are still a few bits I haven’t quite established, and any errors that remain are of course mine (and please tell me when you spot them!).

Examen aquae frigidae

Quando Romani propter invidiam tulerunt domno Leoni papae oculos et linguam propter
thesaurum sancti Petri, tunc venit ad imperatorem Karolum, ut eum adiuvaret de suis inimicis.
Tunc imperator reduxit eum Romam, et restituit eum in locum suum, et thesaurum supradictum
non potuit invenire aliter nisi per istud iudicium. Quod iudicium fecerunt beatus Eugenius et Leo et imperator, ut episcopi et abbates et comites firmiter teneant et credant, quia probatum habuerunt illi sancti
viri, quia illud invenerunt.

Cum volueris hominem mittere ad examem aquae frigidae, apprehende illos quos vis
examinere, et duc eos ad ecclesiam, quibus cantet Presbiter missam, faciat eos ad ipsam offerre. Cum
autem ad communionem venerint, antequam communicent, interroget eos sacerdos conjurando ita.

Adiuro vos homines, per Patrem et Filium et Spiritum sanctum, per sanctam Trinitatem, et per vestram christianitatem quam suscepistis, et per sanctum euangelium, et per istas reliquias quae in ista ecclesia
sunt, ut non praesumatis ullo modo communicare neque ad altare accedere, si vos fecistis quod
vobis imputatur, aut consensistis.

Si autem omnes tacuerint et nullus hoc …, accedat sacerdos ad altare et communi
-cet illos quos voluerunt in aquam probare. Cum autem … communicaverint, dicat sacerdos ad singulos
Hoc corpus et sanguis domini nostri Iesu Christi sit tibi hodie ad probationem. Et expleta missa, faciat ipse sacerdos aquam benedictam, et accipiens eam pergat ad istum locum ubi iudicium facere habent…
omnibus illis bibere aquam benedictam. Cum autem dederit, dicat ad unumquemque Hac aqua fiat
tibi hodie ad probationem.

Postea vero adjurat aquam in hanc modum, in qua illos probare voluerunt: Adiuro te aqua
in nomine Dei patris omnipotentis qui te in principio creavit et iussit ad humanis necessitatibus,
[f. 50] qui etiam te iussit segregari ab aquis superioribus. Adiuro te etiam per ineffabile
nomen Iesu Christi, filii Dei omnipotentis, sub cuius pedibus mare se calcabile prebuit. Adiuro
te etiam per Spiritum sanctum, qui super baptizatum … dominum descendit. Adiuro te per nomen
sanctae et individuae Trinitatis, cuius voluntate aquarum elementum discissum est, et populum
Israel siccis pedibus per illud transivit. Ad cuius etiam invocationem Heliseus ferrum ferventum
quod de manubrio exierat super aquam natare fecit, ut nullomodo, ut nullomodo [sic]
suscipias hominem illum, si in aliquo est inde culpabilis quod illi obicitur, scilicet
opera, consensus, scientia aut ullo ingenio; sed fac eum natare super te, et nulla posset hic
praevalere fantasia aut prestigatio cum quod quaeritur, eo quem occulta cordis non
fallunt revelante modo manifestetur. Adjuro te per nomen Christi precipioque tibi
fidens in sola virtute Dei ut nobis per nomen eius obedias, cui omnis creatura servit,
quem Cherubin et Seraphin ineffabile voce conlaudant, dicentes: ‘Sanctus, sanctus,
sanctus, dominus deus sabaoth, pleni sunt celi et terra gloria tua, osanna in excelsis’,
qui regnat et dominatur per infinita secula seculorum. Amen.

Finita … huius… adiurationem aquae, exeat illos vestibus suis, et faciat
eos osculare sanctum euangelium et crucem Christi. Postea de aqua benedicta aspergat secundum
morem quod super unumquemque eorum. Et conversus ad hominem illum, qui …debet ad iudicium, dicat
Adiuro te homo in presento iudicio aquae frigidae, et per invocationem domini nostri Iesu Christi. Adiuro te
per Patrem et Filium et spiritum sanctum, et per Trinitatem inseperabilem, per Mariam matrem domini
nostri Iesu Christi, et per omnes angelos et per archangelos, virtutes et potestates, principatus domina-
-tiones thronos, Cherubin et Seraphim, et .. per omnia caelestia agmina, et per …judicii
Dei et per 24 seniores, et per 4 evangelistas Marcus et Mattheum Lucam et Johannem et per 12 apostolos
et 12 prophetas, per martyres per confessores et virgines, et per tres pueros qui cum ceteris
ante Deum assistunt, Sidrach Misach, et Abdenago, et per 144 milia qui empti sunt de terra,
et sequentes agnum quocumque …et per omnem populum Dei sanctum et per baptismum, quo in Christo per
sacerdotem regeneratus es, te adiuro, ut, si hoc furtum fecisti vel aut facere alterum vidisti
aut bajulasti, aut in domum tuum recepisti, aut in aliquo consentaneus fuisti, aut si habes cor
incrassatum, induratum, et culpabilis es, non te praesens suscipiat aqua, neque aliquo maleficio
tuo res possit occultari quam credimus dei omnipotentia manifestari. Propterea te deprecor domine
Iesu Christe ostende nobis maiestatis signum tale, ut si culpabilis in hoc facto iste homo est nullatenus ab hac
aqua recipiatur, et hoc facias ad laudem et gloriam et invocationem nominis tui, ut cognoscant omnes qui
tu es dominus noster Iesus Christus qui cum patre et spiritu sancto vivis,  et regnas in secula seculorum amen. His dictis ex more colligatus in nomine Domini deponatur in aquam qui deponandum est.

‘The Eye of God is Watching You’: Bishops and Martyrs in Vandal North Africa

Constantine in Algeria, the see of Bishop Honoratus Antoninus

Guest post by Dr Harry Mawdsley, postdoctoral researcher at the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen

While studying for my PhD at the University of Sheffield, I was lucky enough to be part of the Medieval Latin Translation (MLT) group, which meets informally on a roughly fortnightly basis during term time. Each semester we have a go at translating a medieval text, preferably one which has not yet been translated into English, with the aim of making our finished version available online for the benefit of other researchers and students.

In Autumn semester 2019, I proposed a letter written by an African bishop named Honoratus Antoninus in c.437 A.D. I had come across this letter while researching the penalty of exile in the post-Roman kingdoms, as it was addressed to a man named Arcadius who had been banished somewhere in North Africa by the Vandal king Geiseric (r. 428-477). Although I had already produced a rough translation of the letter, I was eager to look at the text more closely with the MLT group. The fruits of our labour are presented in this blog post, which provides (to the best of my knowledge) the first published translation of Honoratus’ letter. My thanks to Jasper Chopping, Richard Gilbert, Alex Traves, and Tianpeng Zhang who all collaborated with me on the translation, and especially to Dr Charles West, who led the group, checked over the finished translation, and heroically researched its complicated manuscript history. Any errors that remain are, of course, my sole responsibility.

Historical context

Before providing the English translation, I thought it might be helpful to prospective readers to offer a brief summary of the letter’s historical context and contents. The letter was written during a tumultuous period in Roman history. In the first decade of the fifth century, several ‘barbarian’ groups had crossed over Rome’s Rhine frontier and caused disruption as they moved through the western provinces. One of those groups were the Vandals who, by the time of Geiseric’s succession in 428, had settled in the province of Baetica in southern Spain.

King Geiseric, however, took the momentous decision to move his followers across the straits of Gibraltar into Roman North Africa. Advancing eastwards along the coast, Geiseric won a string of victories against the Roman armies sent to resist him and captured the city of Hippo Regius – the see of the renowned theologian St Augustine who died during the siege – in 432. With limited resources available and recognising the strength of the Vandal position, the Western Emperor Valentinian III (r. 425-455) concluded a peace treaty with Geiseric in 435 and ceded him control of the provinces of Mauretania and the western half of Numidia.

Like many other barbarian kings, Geiseric subscribed to a form of Christianity erroneously referred to by contemporaries (and many modern historians) as Arianism but which is more properly described as Homoian. However, unlike many of his counterparts, Geiseric was a militant proponent of his creed, and over the course of his long reign he enacted several policies that targeted the Catholic or rather Nicene church in Vandal Africa. He was particularly concerned with ensuring that those serving in the royal administration subscribed to the Homoian confession and on several occasions attempted to force his Nicene officials to apostatise through threats of punishment.

It was this policy that resulted in the banishment of one of Geiseric’s loyal advisers, a man named Arcadius, in around 437. According to the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, Arcadius fell out with the king when he refused to adopt Homoian Christianity.[1] Geiseric responded by banishing Arcadius together with three other Catholic courtiers named Paschasius, Probus, and Eutychianus. Prosper provides no indication of where the men were sent but they must have remained within the Vandal territories as they were later executed on Geiseric’s orders.

Bishop Honoratus and the Contents of his Letter

Honoratus Antoninus was the Catholic bishop of the see of Cirta/Constantina [mod. Constantine, Algeria – pictured above], which had fallen under Vandal rule following the treaty of 435. It is not clear why Honoratus addressed his letter solely to Arcadius, rather than to all four of the courtiers who had been punished by Geiseric – perhaps Arcadius had some pre-existing connection with Honoratus or was living in exile close to his see, or perhaps the bishop believed that Arcadius’ faith was wavering and thus needed special attention.

In any case, Honoratus’ letter was designed to console Arcadius, while encouraging him to remain steadfast in his commitment to Nicene Christianity. Judging by Honoratus’ repeated allusions to Arcadius’ impending martyrdom, it would seem that at the time of the letter’s writing Geiseric had already sentenced Arcadius to death (or at least Honoratus anticipated that this would happen in the near future). Throughout the letter, the bishop reminds Arcadius time and again of what is at stake in his dispute with the king. Arcadius, so Honoratus tells him, is on the cusp of greatness; if he remains true to his faith and accepts the martyr’s crown, he will join Christ and the apostles in heaven. However, if he falters, he will humiliate the Catholic church and will risk spending eternity in damnation. So, while the tone of the letter is generally positive and uplifting, it is laced with a stark warning.

Honoratus employs several rhetorical strategies to prepare Arcadius for his showdown with the Homoian authorities. He refers to exemplars drawn from scripture – Job, the Maccabean mother, and, of course, Christ himself – whom Arcadius should look to for inspiration. He also reassures Arcadius about his fate, explaining how his pain will be assuaged through the strength of his faith and that his sins will be forgiven. But again such reassurances come with a sting in the tail, as Honoratus reminds Arcadius that God is watching him and testing him. Thus, for the good of his soul, and the souls of others, he must persevere and complete his victory.

In the latter half of his letter, Honoratus adopts a more theological perspective, outlining the nature of the relationship between Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. By way of analogy, Honoratus emphasises the unity of the Trinity. It is possible that Arcadius had specifically requested such an explanation in some previous (and non-extant) correspondence with the bishop. Alternatively, Honoratus may have simply wanted to provide Arcadius with a refresher in how Nicene belief differed from the Vandal’s Homoian confession, which favoured a nontrinitarian doctrine in which Christ is distinct from and subordinate to God the Father.

Textual History

The first edition of the letter was published by Johannes Sichard in 1528, in Antidotum contra diversas omnium fere seculorum hereses. The German palaeographer and philologist, Paul Lehmann, who wrote about Sichard’s sources, was unsure which manuscript Sichard had used for his text and was unable to find one.[2] However, a little digging has turned up two manuscripts: Montpellier BM H 308, at fol. 174, a ninth-century manuscript from Lyon linked to the Carolingian scholar Florus of Lyon, and Paris lat. 16331, a thirteenth-century manuscript (probably the manuscript mentioned in a medieval Sorbonne catalogue). [3] The edition used for our translation was published as part of the Patrologia Latina (PL 50, Paris, 1846, cols 567-70) which was itself based on the edition published by Marguerin de La Bigne in Maxima bibliotheca veterum patrum vol. 8 in 1677, which in turn was probably based on Sichard’s 1528 edition. The Patrologia edition of the Latin text we used for our translation can be found here (n.b. requires subscription), or as in open access format here (via the Zuerich Corpus corporum project).

Translation

The Consolatory Letter of Bishop Honoratus Antoninus of Constantina to Arcadius, who has been Driven into Exile by King Geiseric of the Vandals.

Go on, faithful soul, go on; and, confessor of unity, rejoice that you have merited to suffer abuse in the name of Christ, just as when the apostles were flogged. Behold, this snake now lies beneath your feet. It was able to attack, but it fell, since it was not able to strike you. I demand of you, crush its head: let it not rise again in the martyr’s contest, let no one agitate you. Behold, Christ rejoices and watches you: the angels rejoice, and assist you; the crowd of demons watches your heel: do not falter, lest the demons who are now grieving rejoice. The whole chorus of the martyrs, your predecessors, stands with you: the martyrs await and protect you, and stretch out the crown. I ask you; hold fast what you have, lest someone else take your crown [Apoc. 31]. How short is the time in which you will fight! And how long the time in eternity in which you will be victorious in eternity! Finish what you have begun; today you will see why you are suffering; nothing is hidden from the Lord; let the devil not deceive you in the matter, when he piles confusion upon you; he does not want you, my dearest, to suffer. Truly, brother, you have a struggle. This confession is undiminished: if you die, you may be certain that you will be a martyr.

Job did not pay heed to his wife, and so he won; not to his family, not to riches, not to his friends, and rightly he prevailed. Adam loved his spouse too much, and therefore he fell so lamentably. Thus, the Lord says: “He does not send away his father, or his mother, or his wife, or his sons, or his daughters for me, is not my disciple”. [Mark 10]. If you were dead, how could your wife or family call you back? Just stay with him whom you have taken up, listen to him, hold him tight, do not reject him; and do not look back to your wife or family. In your heart, the battle you have begun is already complete. The archangel that fell is fighting you; he himself is wrestling against you; but on your side you have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Do not be afraid: see, he is helping you so he can crown you. The Maccabean mother sent seven sons to their death for Christ. They were tortured in front of her, and she encouraged them all the more to die. After her sons were killed, behold – she exults to be crowned with her sons. Consider that God made you in your mother’s womb: he gave you spirit and soul, he endowed you with reason and wisdom. He made heaven and earth, and all the things which are in them. Thus he wants to receive you when you die for the faith, so that he may display his full majesty to you. Consider the world: it will perish. Consider the sun and the moon and the stars: they too will melt away. Fight bravely for your soul, which will either live forever or will forever perish. Behold, your sins have been forgiven. And for this struggle, God will expunge all your iniquities whatever you have managed to commit up to today.

Hear what the prophet Ezekiel says about this matter: “the day when the unjust man is a fellow-servant and creates justice from his iniquity, I will not remember any of his transgressions anymore, saith the Lord” [Ezek. 18.22]. Your justice, your faith (since he is just who lives from faith), your tribulation, despoliation, and exile have brought you the remission of your sins. Death opens up to you the kingdoms of heaven. What will it feel like when you see yourself with Saint Stephen? What will it feel like when you have Peter and Paul as friends, whom you used to pray to as patrons? Your soul will soon see Christ, and your body will be in the cool resting place of the resurrection, so that your flesh may see what your soul will see when it soon departs. The Devil rages, Christ rejoices. Ask, cry out, and demand help; and soon you will receive peace of mind. Fear the eternal punishments, where it always burns, where the body and soul are always tortured in darkness, where body and soul burn for eternity with the Devil. Fear Gehenna, and now hold onto Christ. Now is the time to either live or die. No one will rescue you if you falter in this fight.

And what benefit is it to you, if you agree with the devil, and soon afterwards you depart from your body? Or do you not know that the life of your body is in the power of your God, who can instantly take the flesh away from you if you relinquish the faith? A certain Christian recounted that, while he was being tortured on the rack for his faith, there was an angel with a shining face standing by him, with a cloth soaked in water, who splashed water on his face and wiped it with the cloth. While he was tortured, the angel did not withdraw, consoling him and refreshing him. Moreover, the martyr of Christ did not inwardly feel the punishment that he sustained. The tortures are less felt when the fighting is for Christ, because the strength of the soul overcomes the pains of the world; and since the divinity has been invoked, the bitterness of the tortures is softened.

Behold, you are held on behalf of mankind; and when you are broken, you will not lose the faith, even if you have lost your flesh. Show God this perseverance, and you need not greatly fear the punishment; for either it will either be great and soon over, or it will be trifling, and your soul will be in no great torment. You must pray, however, because you have begun to struggle, and you have not failed; you have commenced your martyrdom, so look after your soul. I adjure you by the union of the Trinity, for which you will suffer death, to preserve your heart, and strengthen it through the Holy Spirit, which you wished to inspire you, and which you have honoured in yourself. Fight bravely through the purity of your baptism, which you never intended to let down. Be sure of the crown; be sure in the fight, until the Lord wishes to complete your victory. Now God is testing your soul. There is the eye of God: it is watching you from hour to hour, what you are doing, what are thinking, how you are fighting, how you are behaving. If it sees that you are strong, it rejoices and assists; if it sees that you are weak, it sustains and uplifts.

So fight for the truth continuously until death; and you will be a salvation not only for yourself but for others: otherwise God will examine both your soul and the souls of others. You are the standard-bearer of Christ; you are marching first in the battle line: if you fall, you will not be without blame for the death of others. Be apprehensive of that: for, if you succeed, you will have fought for the salvation of many people, and you will receive a manifold crown. God is one, God can be nothing less, God cannot be changed. You know these things, so hold on to the truth strongly. Listen briefly to what I said before. God is one: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, yet the flesh pertains only to Christ. Truly, the soul is one thing, reason is another: but reason is in the soul. And the soul is one; but the soul does one thing, reason does another: the soul lives, reason knows. Life pertains to the soul; wisdom pertains to reason; and yet neither is the soul without reason, nor is reason without the soul; and though they are one, the soul alone takes up life, reason alone takes up wisdom. Thus the Father and the Son, although they are one, and God is one, yet the flesh pertains to Christ alone, just as wisdom pertains to reason alone, though it does not recoil from the soul. See therefore, the heat and light of the sun are in one ray, but the heat dries out, while the light illuminates: the heat does one thing, the light another, although the heat and the light cannot be separated from each other. The light therefore brings illumination, not warmth; the heat brings warmth, not illumination.

Each does different things individually, yet they do not recoil from each other. Thus the Son alone took on the flesh, and yet did not depart from the Father, nor did he divide himself from the Father. The Son therefore took on the flesh as a quality, and yet the Father and the Holy Spirit were not absent in majesty. Equality in divinity, specific in the Son’s flesh; but the divinity of the Father or the Holy Spirit did not recede from him. Christ took on the flesh, but did he retreat from the Father or the Holy Spirit? Therefore, there is a true unity. Both Father and Holy Spirit filled the flesh of Christ, but by majesty, not by taking it up. You want to know that the Father was in him: “I am not alone”, said Christ, “but the Father is with me “[John 16:32]. Listen to what the evangelist relates about the Holy Spirit, who was with him: “Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned to the [river] Jordan” [Luke 4.1]. Behold, Christ alone took on the flesh, and yet the Father and the Holy Spirit were not absent in their majesty. If they fill up heaven and earth, they could not abandon the flesh of Christ, as long as they remained in the unity of divinity.

Furthermore, consider the lyre as it gives forth melodies with sweet sounds: three things seem as one, skill, hand and string. Skill dictates, the hand plays, and the string resounds. All three are at work, but only the string produces the sound you hear. Neither skill nor the hand make a sound, but each of them is working together with the string. Thus, neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit took flesh, but even so they are working together with the Son. Only the string produces sounds, only Christ took on flesh. The working consists of three things; but just as the production of sound pertains only to the string, so the taking on of human flesh pertains only to Christ. These words come from an inconsequential man placed in great suffering, so that whatever should be said came only with difficulty to my mind. This is the proper rule of the faith. If anything happens to you on account of this, you have achieved martyrdom. Christ received blows, Christ endured the spit of others, Christ drank sour wine vinegar, Christ was crowned with thorns, Christ was crucified, and the righteous was condemned among guilty thieves; Christ was pierced by a spear — Christ stood firm through all this on behalf of your faults, so how much firmer must you stand for your soul, so that nobody takes away your crown.

Now you are in the stadium; march forward bravely, do not be afraid; let nothing terrify you; let nothing deeply trouble you, because the whole Church prays for you so that you might conquer. The Catholic church is looking out for you, its martyr, so that it may honour you just like its martyr Stephen. See to it that you do not confound us in this world. See to it that you do not humiliate us in the sight of our enemies. Christ the Lord endures with you, the church endures with you. Be most confident about your crown; do not fear at all whatever past sins you have been able to commit.


[1] Prosper, Chron. a.437, MGH AA 9, 475-6 (available here: https://www.dmgh.de/mgh_auct_ant_9/index.htm#page/475/mode/1up)

[2] P.J.G. Lehmann, Iohannes Sichardus und von ihm benutzten Bibliotheken und Handschriften (Munich, 1911), p. 204.

[3] Thanks to Pierre Chambert-Protat for his help with this!

Edited to correct information about manuscript transmission 03/06/20.

No mercy for the simoniacs

In 1059, the campaign to rid the church of the evil of simony moved up a gear. Simony was the sin – contemporaries said heresy – of acquiring ecclesiastical office in exchange for gifts, or promises of favour. At a council in Rome, Pope Nicholas II declared that all priests who had secured their position in this way were now deposed.

But Nicholas went further than that. He not only deposed priests who had paid for their offices, he also targeted priests who had been ordained by such priests, even if their own ordination had been carried out for free (gratis). This was a radical and controversial measure, reminiscent, as Conrad Leyser has pointed out, of the Donatist schism in the fifth century, because it implied that the sacraments of simoniac priests were invalid. Its practical implications were so great that Nicholas accepted that priests already freely ordained by simoniacs might stay in their offices – but by merciful concession, not by the letter of the law.

Nicholas’s decree also dealt with matters of papal election, so it might be tempting to read its far-reaching statements about simony as primarily an act of dramatic rhetoric, aimed at a local, Roman audience. Was it really intended to have an impact in the Latin church as a whole?

Actually, the answer might be yes. There’s a clue in the manuscript transmission – ie, how the text was preserved in the Middle Ages. Nicholas’s decree was copied not in manuscripts written in Rome, but in manuscripts based on a compilation of Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury – and quite separately, in a manuscript now preserved in Vic in Catalonia. As Rudolf Schieffer pointed out, this suggests that Nicholas II took care to promulgate his decisions beyond Rome, sending out not only this decree, but also related material such as an oath sworn by the recanting heretic Berengar of Tours, which accompanies the 1059 decree in all manuscripts.

The Vic manuscript is especially interesting, however, since it also contains a copy of Humbert of Moyenmoutier’s 1058 treatise Three Books Against the Simoniacs. It’s long been debated how much this radical text spread, since not many copies of it now survive. But its proximity to the 1059 decree about simony in the Vic manuscript suggests not only that it might have spread more than we might think, but that it might even have been actively disseminated by the papacy as part of its anti-simony campaigns.

The mid-eleventh-century papacy is often overshadowed by Pope Gregory VII, but it’s becoming ever clearer how much he was the product, and not the cause, of ‘reform’.

Pope Nicholas II’s 1059 decree (PDF)

The Carolingian military-religious complex & the fate of the Middle Kingdom

Since at least the early tenth century, the failure of the Middle Kingdom – the kingdom of Lothar II, Lotharingia – has been tied to the failure of the Carolingian empire, whose wider history has almost always been dominated by the trope of decline: the inability of Charlemagne’s successors to measure up. That’s lent the kingdom’s eventual fate – divvied up by rival kings in 870 – an air of inevitability.

But for all that a combination of bad luck and poor judgement landed King Lothar II into a very deep hole in the 860s,  we must beware the historian’s besetting vice of teleology. Dramatic reversals in fortune were par for the course in ninth-century politics. Lothar was admittedly in a pickle from 863 onwards thanks to his marital problems, but had it been his uncle King Charles the Bald who’d succumbed to unexpected illness in 869, events would have taken a rather different turn. And this blog is about some evidence that, up to his death, Lothar’s embattled kingdom seemed to remain in working order.

Like other Carolingian kingdoms, Lothar II’s had been afflicted by Viking raids, though the absence of a Lotharingian equivalent of the Annals of St Bertin or Annals of Fulda mean that we’re generally less informed about them. Viking raids could be dangerous and destabilising, but they also offered rulers a chance to demonstrate their martial vigour against an unproblematically ‘othered’ enemy. The Franks had mixed feelings about “civil” war – i.e. killing other Franks – but fighting Vikings was a different matter.

That’s demonstrated by a letter that chances to survive from Bishop Adventius of Metz, one of King Lothar’s most important supporters, and which probably dates from the year 867. In it, Bishop Adventius gives notice that the ‘whole people’ in his diocese is to undertake a three-day fast to beseech God for Lothar’s victory in an upcoming confrontation with the Vikings (see translation below). This is, in a way, the staging for a holy war.

Without doubt there were genuine religious motives at work here. But Lothar II’s kingdom was under enormous external pressure, which had not been relieved by Lothar’s decision under compulsion to readmit Theutberga as his wife in 865. So the opportunity to bring everyone together in a set of religious ceremonies against a common enemy would have been a welcome fillip to the king and his supporters. Here everyone could see the God-given, traditional order being rehearsed by the Carolingian military-religious complex: bishops praying for kings to triumph in war, with the common people (vulgaris populus) doing as they were told by their local priests.

In 867, Lothar II could, then, still present himself as a traditional king doing traditional kingly things, despite all the problems he and his supporters were facing. Ironically, though, hewing to tradition was actually one of the causes of those problems, since his disastrous marriage politics can be read as an attempt to behave just as his predecessors had, without realising that the ground had moved beneath his feet. In the end, maybe Lothar II was just too traditional for his own good?

Translation of Adventius’s letter about the Vikings (pdf) 

Image – oh just some manuscript or other (w. thanks to Anna Dorofeeva)

Simony, the Latin West and Byzantium

It’s long been emphasised by historians of the European Middle Ages that their subjects did not think of themselves as medieval, a periodisation that was only invented and imposed later. Less often discussed, but perhaps just as important, is that they would not usually have thought of themselves as ‘European’ either. There certainly was a medieval concept of Europe (Europa). But as Klaus Oschema and Marie-Céline Isaia have suggested, that itself means that we should be cautious about using the term when the people we are studying did not.

To avoid the risk of anachronism that the language of “medieval Europe” might bring with it, historians have sometimes instead talked of the Latin West to describe their focus of study. In many ways this is both understandable and justifiable. People living in Carolingian Francia, for instance, did think of themselves as western, and the widespread use of Latin in liturgical and learned contexts – no matter what the vernacular – eased cultural transfer across wide areas, from Ireland to Hungary, and from Iceland to Sicily. There is a real cultural network here to be studied.

However, this cultural network was not strictly bounded or contained, and in fact many of its most central ideas developed in and through dialogue with those living elsewhere. As Saba Mahmood has put it when talking of European encounters with the wider world, ‘These encounters did not simply leave Christianity untouched but transformed it from within…’[1]

The text presented here in English translation is a case in point. It is a letter written on the theme of simony, that it is to say the purchase (or, according to this treatise, attempted purchase) of ecclesiastical office: paying to become a priest or bishop. Very likely this letter was written by Humbert of Moyenmoutier, since it seems in some ways a first draft of his much longer (and more celebrated) Three books against the simonists. This letter was therefore an important step in the elaboration of a key concept in medieval history.

Significantly, however, this “early draft” was written to a Byzantine governor in southern Italy – a representative of another socio-political complex, in which Greek, not Latin played the role of lingua franca, and in which ancient ideas of the state (and of office holding) seemed better preserved. In other words, we can see Humbert developing his ideas – ideas that proved central in the history of the Latin West – in dialogue with people located in overlapping but distinct cultural networks.

Encounters such as these were not marginal to the development of the cultural network we might label the Latin West: they were baked in.

‘On the heresy of simony’: translation (opens pdf)

[1] Saba Mahmood, ‘Can secularism be other-wise? (A critique of Charles Taylor’s A secular age)’, available via http://www.academia.edu/916047/Can_Secularism_be_Other-wise_A_Critique_of_Charles_Taylors_A_Secular_Age_

Carolingian queens – coronation ordines

“Curiously, the earliest documented [coronation ordo] is for a queen, Judith in 856” – Jinty Nelson.

The coronation ritual by which the Frankish princess Judith was initiated into her marriage with the West Saxon king Aethelwulf has often been studied by historians of queenship and Anglo-Frankish contacts and connections. It has not however been translated into English before, as far as I know.  This blog is therefore to make available my own draft translation of this important text, on the day of a modern royal wedding to boot. It’s rather rough and ready (& not polished enough for formal publication), so comments are welcome.

To provide some context, I’ve also translated a slightly later coronation ritual for another Frankish queen, Ermentrude. This ceremony,  which took place in 866, did not mark the beginning of Ermentrude’s marriage to Charles the Bald – they had been married since 842, and in fact Judith was one of their children. The liturgy is preceded by a short text which offers an explanation as to why Charles (and Ermentrude?) arranged the event, decades into their married life. Further research on this by Zubin Mistry is forthcoming in the journal Early Medieval Europe.

Medieval coronation orders are strange sources. Composed largely of prayers, interspersed with citations from and references to the Bible, they can seem difficult to make much of (and to translate into English,  too). However, these two rituals were written for specific occasions, and it may be possible to detect traces of how they were tailored to those occasions. They were also written by the same person – Archbishop Hincmar of Reims.  That makes a comparison even more telling: how did Hincmar adjust and adapt his material, according to the political and theological imperatives of the moment?

One final point. It’s often assumed that marriages such as these were political affairs, not affairs of the heart. Perhaps. But Hincmar at least hoped that one wouldn’t exclude the other, since alongside praying for eternal life, freedom from ‘the stain of adultery’ and plenty of offspring, he also hoped Ermentrude and Charles would persevere amore coniugali sincero: ‘in sincere conjugal love’. Unfortunately, Charles’s efficiency in negotiating a remarriage to a woman named Richildis merely days after Ermentrude’s death in 869 suggests this prayer may not have been fully answered.

Translation of the Judith and Ermentrude consecration ordines (pdf)

The politics of land in ninth-century Francia

Chris Wickham has argued that polities whose political economy is based on grants of land (as opposed, say, to tax and salaries) are intrinsically unstable. Here’s a text in support of his argument, written by Archbishop Hincmar of Reims in 876 – the De villa noviliaco, a text surviving in a single ninth-century manuscript (Paris lat. 10758).

In it, Hincmar recounts the complex history of the villa (estate) of Neuilly. King Carloman granted this estate to the church of Reims in the late eighth century; the grant was confirmed by Charlemagne who nevertheless gave it in benefice to a Saxon named Anscher. Later, Charlemagne’s son Louis gave it to a count named Donatus. Legally, these grants in benefice did not overturn Reims’s ultimate ownership. However, Donatus craftily sliced off some holdings from the benefice which his family would later claim were entirely his.

When Emperor Louis’s sons rebelled against him, Donatus had to make a political choice; unfortunately for him, he made the wrong decision, joining Lothar just before Lothar surrendered. Neuilly was duly taken from Donatus, and given to a certain Hatto. But when Hatto died, Donatus and his family got it back again. However, when Louis the German invaded the western Frankish kingdom in 858, Donatus’s widow Landrada read the politics wrong once again, deserting Charles to join Louis. When Charles re-established control, he therefore took the estate from Landrada and gave it to the monastery of Orbais. Only then did Hincmar finally manage to get Neuilly back for Reims, shortly followed by the associated holdings stolen by Donatus. Hincmar did not keep the estate in house, however, preferring to grant it out in benefice to clients, Rothaus and Bernaus.

Donatus’s family was down but not out, however, for when Louis the German invaded again in 874 (while King Charles was in Italy), his and Landrada’s sons managed to get the estate back from Queen Richildis, presumably in return for their political and maybe military support. Not until Charles’s return from Italy was this grant overturned thanks to Hincmar’s lobbying.

The estate of Neuilly thus changed hands at least eleven times in around a century. Hincmar thought Reims had the better claim – and used the written word to prove it, referring to several charters none of  which now survive. But the family of Donatus thought otherwise, and had their own established hereditary claim which had twice been honoured. We cannot know what they would have made of Hincmar’s arguments, but mostly likely they would have argued that although Reims owned Neuilly, they had a family claim to it as a benefice. Perhaps the families of Hatto, Anscher and Bernaus (each of who had held at it some point) would have seen things differently again.

Who had the best claim to Neuilly was therefore a political question, which is why Hincmar wrote and preserved his (doubtless partisan) account. But what Hincmar’s history does show quite unequivocally is how tensions over landholding made Frankish politics in the ninth century very unstable. For there was always someone waiting for the right opportunity to press long-harboured claims over some estate – and no shortage of rival kings willing to provide that opportunity.

English translation (pdf)