Category Archives: church

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

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) 

Ninth-century popular heresy?

Clerics preaching that God could be worshipped anywhere and that the cult of relics was a fraud, spreading their dangerous message in the countryside, and preying in particular on credulous and uneducated women…

…This may sound like a summary of some 11th or 12th-century criticism of heretics, like that of Ralph Glaber. But actually it’s a resumé of a ninth-century miracle story, recorded in the Miracula sancti Dionysii of Paris (an English translation is provided below).

The Miracles of Saint-Denis is a surprisingly neglected ninth-century  source.  It’s divided into three books. According to Levillain and, following him, Stoclet, the first two books (BHL 2202) were written in the 830s by none other than this blog’s old friend, Hincmar of Reims, who had been a monk at St Denis before his elevation to the Reims archbishopric in 845.[1] It’s certainly striking that extracts from them survive in Reims BM. 1395, a ninth-century manuscript from St Remi.

A third book of miracles was written later, around 877 (BHL 2203).[2] Most historians have been less interested in this book: Levillain because it had nothing to say about the Merovingian kings, Stoclet because it has less topographical information for the history of the monastery. In his recent book on Dionysian hagiography, Michael Lapidge also thought Book III wasn’t that interesting – just “a sequence of brief and unilluminating miracles”.[3] Yet it’s in this book that our miracle story of the ‘pseudo-preaching’ clerics and their victims is to be found.

Obviously one can’t take such an account at face value. But it’s nevertheless interesting that in his recounting of the miracle, the author, presumably a monk of St-Denis, went to some trouble to justify the monumentality of the early medieval church, using a string of biblical precedents. That suggests a perception of a genuine counter-argument of the kind attributed to the ‘brainless’ clerics in the story – one that might be linked to contemporary arguments about church property, mentioned in an earlier blog.

Since it’s at the end of the miracle collection, could this story have been added later? That’s in principle possible, since the earliest manuscript is 12th-century, and miracle collections did sometimes grow by accretion. But the story’s author notes that he had mentioned the place of Chaudrades “above”, in a cross-reference to chapter 10 of Book III, whose ninth-century credentials seem pretty strong (e.g. references to pagi, the personal names, etc). So any addition would have been fraudulent in intent. Given that we know there was some ambivalence about relics in the ninth-century, this seems an over-complicated solution.

What’s most surprising about the story is its suggestion that ‘ordinary’ people, not just clerical elites (or sub-elites), might have been affected by such views in the Carolingian period. How to interpret this evidence is a problem that needs to be chewed over. In any case, it’s a reminder that early medieval miracle collections deserve more attention than they tend to receive – and for none is that more true than the Miracles of Saint-Denis.

Note on the Latin edition of the Miracula Sancti Dionysii (with links to the manuscripts on the ever-amazing Gallica)
The standard edition of the Miracula Sancti Dionysii is Mabillon’s Acta Sanctorum Ordinis sancti Benedicti, based on two 13th– and 15th-century manuscripts (Paris BnF nal 1509 and Paris, Arsenal 1030). Mabillon later came across the much older Reims BM 1395. He published two more miracles he found there, but without updating his earlier edition, although the Reims manuscript clearly provides alternative readings. And Mabillon didn’t know at all about Vatican Reg. lat. 571, a late 12th-century manuscript, which has a full text that may well be better than the manuscripts Mabillon used. A new edition of the Miracula could be based on the Vatican manuscript, drawing on the Reims extracts (already edited by Luchaire as an appendix to his study).[4]

Miracles of St Denis, Book III, Ch. 15: draft translation

Latin edition: Mabillon Acta Sanctorum p. 329

Paris nal. 1509, s. xiii, p. 372
Paris lat. 2447, s. xiii, fol. 184
Vatican Reg. 571, s. xii, fol. 95v
Paris lat. 2873B (s. xv), fol?

About two women who suffered from spasms and were eventually cured

There were two women, one of whom lived in Chaudardes of Laon (Caldarda Laudunensium) which I mentioned above, and the other in the village (vicus) of Breuil, whose faith was subverted by pseudo-preaching clerics. These clerics mocked the afore oft-mentioned Denis. They said that God was everywhere and did not need to be sought anywhere else, although Jacob placed the stone where he said the true God was [Genesis 28], and Naaman was cured nowhere else but the River Jordan [2 Kings 5], and certain kings of Israel who walked perfectly before God were blamed only because they worshipped him in the heavens, and our Lord Jesus Christ wished to be born nowhere else than in a house of bread [ie the Eucharist]* – Jesus who gives life to those who worthily consume him, and is a future judgement for those who take him unworthily…**

Eventually these women, urged by the admonitions of their neighbours, came together amongst the crowds that gathered on the sixteenth kalends of October [16th Sept]. While we were celebrating the night office on the holy Sunday night, suddenly amongst the whole multitude they began to suffer from that disease which we call spasm. After they had collapsed to the ground many times like madmen, they looked like they were dead. They suffered for this for a long time, until they confessed that they had not only believed what they had heard from the brainless clerics, but had often mocked those who sought the saint.


*Thus Mabillon (in panis domo). The Vatican manuscript however has an abbreviation mark on the p and a suspension mark over the a: not panis but p̱ānis. Answers on a postcode please.
**the Latin continues ita ibi per quindecim dies sana est reddita (‘thus for fifteen days ?health was returned there’) which is difficult to make sense of.

[1] Levillain, Études sur l’abbaye de Saint-Denis; Stoclet, ‘Les miracula sancti Dionysii, commentaire et donnees topographiques’, in Wyss, Atlas historique de Saint-Denis. The BHL website lists six manuscripts:

Paris lat. 2445A, fols 33-35 (s. xii, extracts);

Vat Reg. 571 (s. xii), fols. 72-97;

Montpellier BU H1 (s. xii?), fols. 213-215r – in fact just the Inventio

Paris lat. 2447 (s. xiii), 153-184v;

Paris lat. 17631 (s. xv), 61-71; and

Paris lat. 2873B (s. xv), 133-162.
The BHL list omits the Reims 1395 manuscript and Paris nal 1509, pp. 305-349.

[2] The BHL website lists four mss with BHL 2203 (all also contain BHL 2202, ie Books I-II):
Vat Reg. 571  (s. xii)

Paris lat. 2447 (s. xiii)
Paris lat. 2873B (s. xv), and
Paris nal 1509 (s. xiii) pp. 349-373.

The Montpellier FM 1, Paris lat. 2445A and Paris lat. 17631 do not have text from the third book.

[3] Lapidge, Hilduin of Saint-Denis.

[4] Luchaire, ‘Étude’.

Fresh heresy in 11th-c. Lotharingia?

In 2016, the MGH published Benedikt Marxreiter’s edition and German translation* of a hitherto unknown text – a work on demonic magic by an eleventh-century monk, Bern of Reichenau.

As well as Bern’s treatise, De nigromantia, there also survive two cover letters, which accompanied copies of the work that he sent to people, which are also included in Marxreiter’s edition. One of these letters was addressed to Archbishop Poppo of Trier (d. 1047). Here’s a quick draft translation of a key passage:

“Those people stir up foolish, useless and vain questions, who watch the movement of the stars because they think that every human is born under a constellation, who seek answers from demons, who demand divinations, who foster the magical art, and who destroy themselves. Following the Apostle Paul’s words, they ‘introduce sects of perdition, and denying the Lord who bought them, they bring swift destruction on themselves’. We have heard that these people sprouted forth in Italy in the kingdom of Charles, emerged forth for their own ruin, came to Lotharingia and sowed the poisonous seeds of their lethal teaching, for the destruction of many. Your Authority [Poppo] resisted them according to the wisdom divinely given to you, argued against and contradicted them many times… And recently some news that was not good reached me, which reported that certain seedlings of error have again sprouted in Francia, which strive to contaminate the harvest of the catholic faith…”

What does Bern’s letter mean for students of 11th-century heresy – a long vexed historiographical field? On the one hand, it could represent new evidence for the existence and spread of heretics in post-1000 Europe, moving up from Italy into Lotharingia, and connected moreover with the well-known appearance of heretics in France around this time (e.g. the famous 1022 Orleans burnings).

On the other, it could simply show how what was changing was not the heretics but the church’s classification of people perceived as dissenters. Bern was after all a well-networked ‘reforming’ monk, closely connected with both Fleury and Gorze, and thus perhaps prone to see the devil’s work in any resistance to a programme of reform. His association of heresy with demonic magic and astrology certainly suggests that we are dealing with very thick layers of ecclesiastical interpretation. As Marxreiter points out, it certainly can’t be a coincidence that Archbishop Poppo had accused nuns in his diocese of magic, as a justification for dissolving the convent of Pfazel**.

Either way, it’s exciting to have a new piece of the heresy jigsaw to play with.

Image – Wikipedia

* Another edition and German translation came out less than a year later, by Niels Becker. I haven’t yet been able to consult this.

** There’s discussion and an English translation of this episode in Vanderputten, Dark Age Nunneries.

“In the time of the Greeks”: the Rizana Dispute and the Carolingian & Byzantine Empires

What was the difference between the Carolingian Empire formally established by Charlemagne through his coronation in Rome in the year 800, and the Byzantine Empire centred around Constantinople (modern Istanbul)?

The ideological and cultural aspects of this enormous question have been abundantly studied for these two heirs of the ancient Roman Empire, but the issue is perhaps less clearly understood when it comes to the exercise of power. Historians have plenty of sources at their disposal for both these political units, but these sources are culturally embedded in such a way as to make direct comparison difficult, especially when it comes to thinking about how power worked at an everyday level, and how rulers controlled their territories.

There is however one source that not just allows but encourages us to think comparatively about how these two empires actually worked, and that is the Rižana Dispute (sometimes also known as the Plea of Rižana). You can read a full English translation, but here is a brief summary:

Around 804, Charlemagne sent three legates to Istria, a peninsula to the north-east of Italy, to resolve a dispute that had broken out there.

Rizana map

Istria was a region that had previously been under Byzantine control, but Charlemagne had conquered it in 788, and annexed it to the kingdom of Italy (which he had also conquered a few years earlier, in 774). This conquest had brought with it some changes in how Istria was governed: and it was to these changes that people in Istria were objecting in 804.

The source is a record of the meeting that Charlemagne’s legates arranged to sort things out at Rižana, an area now just outside the modern Slovenian town of Koper, a couple of kilometres from the Italian border. The legates summoned 172 leaders from cities and fortified settlements in the Istrian region to hear what the issue was: and these people did not hold their punches.

First of all, the Istrian witnesses complained that since the Frankish conquest, the church had started to throw its weight around much more. They began by accusing the Patriarch of Grado, the most senior churchman of the area, of evading his financial responsibilities. Then they moved onto the other bishops, who they said had been dodging their obligations, evicting people from church lands wrongfully, and generally bullying the local free population.

But their real anger was reserved for Duke John, the main secular agent appointed by the Franks. John, they said, had appropriated the revenues meant for the imperial court for his own purposes, and had also taken over a great deal of property. And that was just the start of it! He’d abolished the traditional hierarchy of offices held by regional leaders, along with the cherished privileges that went with them; he’d demanded extra humiliating services, such as feeding his dogs and onerous long-distance transport duties; and he’d raised tax demands considerably. Getting direct access to the centre of power was much harder than it had been, the Istrian leaders claimed, under the Greeks.

What does this account tell us about the Carolingian and Byzantine empires? Both were obviously agrarian empires, getting their revenues from an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. Rights over grazing livestock were particularly important in this region. So in focusing their demands for revenue on these resources, to some extent the new rulers of Istria simply stepped into the shoes of the old.

But the differences are striking, too. Power in Carolingian Istria was organised and exercised in new ways. The Carolingian regime had apparently empowered bishops at the expense of what seems like the relics of a Roman-style city-based administration maintained by the Byzantines. The Carolingian administrative apparatus was also far less elaborate: instead of a series of grand-sounding titles and offices, each with their own administrative privileges, rituals and customs designed to boost egos, there was just the duke and his all-purposes “sheriffs” (centenarii), together with his own extended family. And, as already mentioned, the new emperor was harder to reach than the old one. To get to the court, and thus to reach Charlemagne’s attention, the Istrians had to go through mediators whom they didn’t altogether trust, whether it was a duke or a church patriarch.

The new Carolingian regime may seem therefore less sophisticated than the Byzantine administration had been. Yet despite our modern preconceptions, and as Matthew Innes has pointed out, that doesn’t mean that it was less effective at flexing its muscles.[1] In fact, judging from the complaints, it was actually more successful at extracting revenues from the region than the Byzantine rulers had been, even if not all of the proceeds ended up at the imperial centre any more.

And, as Stefan Esders has noted, the new regime was also just as literate.[2] The Rižana record itself demonstrates that, since it was probably the first time that the customs of the region had been written down, in this case under the auspices of the Patriarch of Grado (in some ways as much a representative of Frankish authority in Istria as Duke John).

So, a relatively unelaborated and informal apparatus of government posed no barrier to efficient and effective rule. Carolingian Istria seems to have been just as controlled, and just as exploited, as Byzantine Istria, even though (as Rachel Stone has also argued) the Carolingian Empire was organised very differently.

Can we securely draw sweeping conclusions about how power worked in two empires just on the basis of a single document? Of course not. Matters in Istria were complicated by its recent conquest. This was a frontier zone between two empires, so things may well have been very different elsewhere.  But the Rižana Dispute at least gives us a glimpse into how the Carolingian and Byzantine empires were ‘experienced’ differently by the same regional community – and that’s a precious insight of which we should make the most.

Further reading
For more discussion (in English) of the Rizana (sometimes also spelled Risano or Riziano) dispute, see

  • J. Davis, Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire (Cambridge, 2015), esp.  pp. 102-4 and 274-277.
  • M. Innes, ‘Framing the Carolingian Economy’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2009), 42-58.
  • F. Borri, ‘Neighbors and Relatives”: The Plea of Rižana as a Source for Northern Adriatic Elites’, Mediterranean Studies
    17 (2008), pp. 1-26

Image: the Rizana dispute charter (Wikipedia)

[1] M. Innes, ‘Framing the Carolingian Economy’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2009), 42-58.

[2] Stefan Esders, ‘Regionale Selbstbehauptung zwischen Byzanz und dem Frankenreich: Die inquisitio der Rechtsgewohnheiten Istriens durch die Sendboten Karls des Großen und Pippins von Italien’, in Eid und Wahrheitssuche. Studien zu rechtlichen Befragungspraktiken in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, ed. S. Esders (Frankfurt, 1999), 49-112.

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 (lit: ‘acquire marriages’)  which implies a prohibition on becoming married after ordination. But he also says that uxoria copula (lit: ‘wifely bond/union’) is forbidden to priests. Now, this could in principle mean sexual contact with one’s wife – but the context, and 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