Category Archives: Invention of tradition

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

The testimony of no cleric… no, scratch that: of no *layman*.

Just yesterday I came across this manuscript, and thought it so exciting to deserve a quick blog post (this one’s a bit more ‘technical’ than the last couple of posts – you’ve been warned!). The manuscript’s now in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (Ms lat. 4281), and you can see the whole thing for free courtesy of the marvellous Gallica. As far as I can tell, it’s a composite manuscript, mostly of canon law from c. 900.

What interests me however is a folio that was written a bit later, and added into the manuscript – folio 65, from around the year 1000. The folio’s text is mostly a liturgical instruction for how to hold a church council (Schneider’s Ordo 2a, for those of you keen on that sort of thing). But the folio begins with an extract from the so-called Constitution of Sylvester. Now, this is a text in the name of the legendary pope who baptised Constantine in the fourth century, but in reality it was probably faked in the sixth, as part of a campaign by the embattled Pope Symmachus, and it has a section setting out rules for how clerics can be accused. The text was copied into Pseudo-Isidore’s notorious canon law collection in the ninth century – itself a forgery, in that it claimed to be something it wasn’t – through which knowledge of the Constitution of Sylvester subsequently spread (you can read it here).

Whoever wrote this folio copied out just that section about accusing clerics. That’s very interesting in its own right. But what’s more, someone later reader has subsequently made a subtle – but for me very important – alteration. A key sentence (probably) originally read “Testimonium clerici adversus laicum nemo recipiat”, ie “That no one should accept the testimony of a cleric against a layman”. The intention in the sixth century was to firm up the legal boundaries between secular and clerical. But for the corrector, working after 1000, that wasn’t good enough. As is clear just from looking at the manuscript, s/he has erased and rewritten words in order to swap around the clerics and the laymen. So now the text reads “Testimonium laicorum adversus clericum non recipiatur”, ie That no one should accept the testimony of laymen against clerics”: a beautifully clear, and much more powerful, statement of clerical privilege.

Who might have done this, when, and why? I don’t yet know, but hope to find out more soon (the manuscript was probably in Limoges at the time, which is a starting point). For the moment, though, it’s just a fascinating illustration of how sixth-century texts were still important enough to be not just copied but amended five hundred years later: and of how a Late Antique forgery was given life in the ninth century through another forgery, only to be altered in the eleventh century: a forged reforged forgery, in other words. More soon, I hope.

The erased history of Queen Waldrada

Today is the anniversary of the death of Queen Waldrada, 9 April.

Now, let me be the first to admit that hers is hardly a household name. At the time of writing, she does not even have an English Wikipedia page, a sure sign of the historical B-list (she does have a short one in German, and an inaccurate one in French). But her passage into obscurity was considerably pre-internet. Though we know the day of her death, no one recorded the year (presumably around 900). And in one document concerning her, some later medieval scribe even took the trouble literally to write her out of history, erasing her name and replacing it with a made-up ‘Rotrude’.

unaque dilectissimae nobis [Waldradae] Rotrududę dirigens missos deprecans
unaque dilectissimae nobis [Waldradae] Rotrududę dirigens missos deprecans
Yet in her own time, Waldrada was a powerful woman, who led an exciting and eventful life. The concubine of a Frankish king, Lothar II, she became his wife in 862, and participated for a while in the full theatre of medieval queenship. But in 863 the pope forbade the marriage, and forced them to separate. Even so, he thought that she was still holding the reins of power, and accused her of plotting the death of her rival, the king’s ‘other’ wife Theutberga. In the face of this papal onslaught (which included excommunication), King Lothar stuck by Waldrada so doggedly that some observers concluded that she was practising witchcraft, capable of inflaming him to lust merely by showing him enchanted clothing.

Though Waldrada ended her life peacefully in a convent high up in the Vosges above the Rhine, her children too led adventurous lives. One (Hugh) led a major rebellion before he was blinded, ending his life as a reluctant monk; another (Gisela) married a Viking, and witnessed her Scandinavian husband’s assassination, before becoming an abbess; a third (Berta) started a royal dynasty in Italy and (possibly) corresponded with the caliphs of Baghdad.

What, then, does it take to get a Wikipedia page? Why is Waldrada so little remembered today? It’s not a lack of sources as such. Waldrada was at the heart of continental politics in the 860s, and was much discussed by contemporaries like Hincmar of Rheims. Though we don’t have anything that she herself wrote, and despite efforts like those of the scribe mentioned above to remove traces of her, we have plenty of information about her role and activities (including this letter written to her by a pope).

At one level, the issue is simply that Waldrada was a woman. Despite decades of research, women are still less commemorated than men on public historical fora – one of the reasons for the emergence of various internet ‘edit-a-thons’ to give people like Waldrada the recognition they deserve.

But there’s a bigger problem too, one that’s more specific to Waldrada. Largely because of Lothar II’s failed efforts to have Waldrada publicly acknowledged as his queen, their kingdom, Lotharingia, died with him in 869. That failure was in fact a crucial factor in the emergence and stabilisation of the kingdoms to the west and the east: what would eventually become the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The territory that had lain in-between, Lotharingia, became a ‘shadow kingdom’: remembered when it was helpful for political purposes – Lorraine has a claim to be the premier European battlefield – and forgotten when it was not.[1]

Waldrada’s kingdom, Lotharingia (in blue)
Waldrada’s kingdom, Lotharingia (in blue)

Paradoxically, then, the very thing which made Queen Waldrada notorious in her day – her perceived relevance to royal politics – condemned her to obscurity thereafter. She lost her ‘relevance’ back in 869, along with her husband and the kingdom they had ruled together. As a result, no modern country claims to be the political heir of Lotharingia: so there were no 19th-century institutions whose task it was to order and represent Lotharingian history. And modern knowledge about the Middle Ages is based on 19th-century historical research to a degree that’s surprising (including Wikipedia –  in fact especially Wikipedia: just see how many entries are based on out-of-copyright encyclopedias).

Like Lotharingia itself, then, Queen Waldrada has slipped between the cracks, and is largely forgotten today. It’s hardly novel to point out that commemoration is a political act, since choices have to be made (we can’t remember everybody and everything, least until someone finds a way of automating commemoration). But it’s worth considering the extent to which modern public commemorative activity, whether in museums, on Wikipedia, or indeed as ‘On this day in history’ blogs, is silently reproducing the political agendas of the past, whether medieval or Victorian. So on this day, spare a thought for Waldrada – or even better, go and write her a Wikipedia entry.

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Charles West will be giving a talk about the case of Waldrada and Lothar II to the University of the Third Age, at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, Friday 17th April 2015, 10.30am. With Rachel Stone, he is translating a key source for the text, Hincmar of Rheims’s De Divortio, for Manchester University Press, due for publication in July 2016.

A version of this post was also published on History Matters

[1] See the useful article by Simon MacLean, ‘Shadow Kingdom: Lotharingia and the Frankish World, C.850–C.1050’, History Compass 11:6 (2013), 443-457 (£)

Image credits
Cover:Stuttgart Psalter
Marburger Lichtbildarchiv

Secularism and the medieval past

Much of the commentary on the terrible events in Paris a fortnight ago, and even more of the abundant commentary on the commentary that followed, has pivoted around the distinction between religion and the secular that is typically ascribed to the European Enlightenment. Arguments have usually boiled down to how this legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be fiercely guarded at all costs (‘European values’), or, more controversially, how it perhaps needs to be reassessed to adjust to contemporary realities (‘globalisation’).

These are of course primarily political arguments, keyed to current political positions. But they are also historical arguments, in that they both rest on a general, widely-shared view of the shape of (European) history, which for all useful purposes apparently begins with the 18th century.

In point of fact, however, the general consensus that the distinction between religion and the secular originated in the early modern period is, quite simply, not true. Doubtless it took on important new forms at that time. But most historians realise these days that supposed turning points are more historiographical than historical: that very little comes out of nowhere. A recent strand of German research, bringing together sociologists (notably Detlef Pollack) and historians, has profitably discussed whether a process of ‘differentiation’ between religion and the political sphere really began in the 11th century, with the so-called Investiture Quarrel. A similar suggestion has been made, albeit in passing, by the eminent Canadian theorist of ‘secularisation’, Charles Taylor.

Moreover, there is a venerable line of research that explores how the very concept of the ‘secular’, meaning something that is not anti-religious but rather non-religious, was honed in quite specific circumstances by 4th-century Christians as they made sense of the religious and political realities around them, as proposed by R.A. Markus and, more recently, Kate Cooper. As a consequence, modern secularism can be said to derive from a Christian worldview (not a ‘European’ one, though, since a dominant contributor to these early debates was a North African). Arguably that makes the modern concept itself inherently Christian.

Much could be written about these and other ideas. In fact, much already has been written about them in specialist circles, where they are the subjects of often heated controversy. Yet these debates have hardly registered in the copious reflections on the meaning and implications of the Paris attacks. That is not the fault of media-shy medieval historians, nor of lazy journalists content to rehash triumphalist narratives they learned at school (perhaps the most authentically long-lived product of the Enlightenment). It simply reflects the peculiar importance of the Middle Ages in the modern (European) political imaginary. It is an importance that consists, paradoxically, in not mattering at all – thereby authorising political arguments based solely on more recent history. The medieval period is never more crucial than when it acts as a foil to the present day (as pointed out by Julia McClure), and never more present than when it’s silently passed over or peremptorily dismissed.

That’s naturally aggravating for those studying these distant centuries, who find themselves condemned to a highly relevant irrelevance in wider public discourse. But isn’t this politicised depoliticisation also a pity for that public discourse, too? If we don’t realise that ‘modern values’ aren’t quite as straightforwardly modern as seems to be assumed, then the terms of debate will be hugely impoverished, even before anything has been said.

The invention of tradition in the Middle Ages

Often, and not just in popular perception, the Middle Ages is characterised as static, trapped under the heavy weight of the past (indeed, an influential strand of modern argument even suggests that people in the Middle Ages had no real concept of the  future at all). It’s certainly true that old texts played an absolutely crucial role in medieval western society – the Bible, of course, but also other works inherited from Late Antiquity. Yet of course even the most ancient texts require interpretation, and here there was room for creativity and, whether people knew it or not, change.

A good example of this, which I’ve come across in the course of my current research, is provided by a couple of passages in the influential collection of church law put together by the lawyer Gratian in the middle of the twelfth century. Gratian used two texts (C.11, Q.1, D.18 and D.31), attributed to Pope Pius and Pope Fabian, to show that clerics who disobey or attack their bishops are to be handed over to the secular court (traditio curiae) for punishment, after their deposition. Gratian found this a bit difficult to square with his general position, that clerics should not be punished by secular courts. But he argued that since it only applied to civil, not criminal, cases, it was just about OK.

What Gratian didn’t know was that Popes Fabian and Pius were not, as he assumed, ancient Romans, but rather figments of fertile ninth-century imagination. They were created as part of the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals, a largely fictional text dreamed up for reasons that remain to this day somewhat mysterious (though historians are getting there!). Still, its compilers did not invent their texts from scratch, and for the ‘traditio curiae’ bit, they drew on authentic Roman law: all they really did was put it instead into the mouths of made-up popes. So up to a point, Gratian was indeed drawing on genuinely ancient texts, even if they had been filtered through ninth-century ingenuity.

But that Roman law had not meant what Gratian, or quite probably Pseudo-Isidore, thought it meant. In late Roman law, the curia was the city council, serving on which was a major obligation for late Roman elites, since it involved taking responsibility for raising the city’s taxes – a risky thing to do. Clerics were usually exempt from this burden, but under certain circumstances, that exemption could be removed. That was what the Roman law had originally meant, when it talked about the  traditio curiae: it was about returning the (former) clerics back into ruinous curial service.

Just what Pseudo-Isidore thought it meant in the ninth century isn’t entirely clear. But by the twelfth century, when Gratian was writing, curia definitely meant something entirely different: it meant a prince’s ‘court’. It’s no surprise then that Gratian happily interpreted the traditio curiae along lines that made sense to him: for Gratian, it meant handing the cleric over to the ‘secular’ court for disciplining. In this way, Gratian unwittingly transformed late Roman urban administration into practices of feudal justice, with significant consequences for later history: an invention of ‘tradition’ in quite a literal sense.

The take-home point in all this isn’t though simply that Gratian got it wrong. It’s a reminder of something that should be obvious, but that bears restating. Even when they’re copied faithfully across the generations, texts don’t – can’t – mean exactly the same thing a thousand years after they were written, when so much else has changed. Texts, even religious ones, always need context to make sense of them. To assume that any old text doesn’t need interpretation just makes the interpretative act invisible. Historians, in a word, are indispensible. But that you knew already.

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