Category Archives: Late Antiquity

‘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).


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:

[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.

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)

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

Pope Leo of Bourges

One of the firmest proponents of judicial “benefit of clergy” in the ninth century was the great archbishop Hincmar (when it suited him, anyway). And one of his favourite texts for proving the point was a decree issued by Pope Leo I (d. 461) at a Roman synod. As Letha Böhringer has shown here, Hincmar quoted this decree three times and at length: “So holy Leo, when a Roman synod was held, wrote…”, “And holy Leo, pontifex of the Roman Church, decreed in a synod held at Rome…”; “And holy Leo and the Roman synod decreed…”.

Looking at the text, it’s no wonder Hincmar liked Pope Leo’s letter so much. A full English translation is provided below (based on Paris BnF lat. 12445), but in summary, Pope Leo complained about clerics going to the “examen saecularium” in spite of ancient (secular) laws prohibiting this.  In future, such clerics were to be excommunicated. If however a cleric accused a layman, it was possible for him to go to a secular court, with his bishop’s permission, if the layman refused to come before the bishop. Hincmar felt obliged to add that an advocate would be necessary in that case; but otherwise the text suited his purpose very nicely, when he was trying to persuade kings not to put bishops on trial.

So far, so good. The only problem is that in reality Pope Leo wrote nothing of the kind (even though a – poor quality – edition of the letter was included in the Patrologia Latina’s set of Leo’s writings) . The actual author of the text was a somewhat mysterious Bishop Leo of Bourges, working together with the bishops of Tours and Le Mans at some point in the mid-fifth century. The earliest manuscript of the text (the late 8th-century “Pithou collection” of Paris BnF lat. 1564) is quite unambiguous: in this version there’s no connection to Rome, and the text is copied down in a series of material linked to the Loire valley. Only in Hincmar’s own collection of legal texts, Paris BnF 12445 and Berlin SB 1741, has the Bourges letter become Roman – as marked by the inclusion of the words “et synodus romana” into the letter in both manuscripts, a phrase conspicuously absent from the earlier version.

That a minor provincial synod had issued a text like this is remarkable in itself; it’s important (and rather overlooked) evidence for the practical impact of clerical immunity in fifth-century Gaul. But how did this letter become transformed into a decree issued by Pope Leo the Great – at what point between c. 450 and c. 860  was the text “papalized”? And was this the result of genuine confusion between Leos, or a more deliberate attempt to put a crystal-clear statement about clerical immunity into a prestigious papal mouth? Given that the three manuscripts of the text I have mentioned are the only ones I know of, it’s not easy to say. One might conclude that innocent Hincmar knew the text only in the papalized version present in his own manuscripts.

And yet…. As it happens, in 1991 Jinty Nelson identified another occasion on which Hincmar drew on the text – one not mentioned by Letha Böhringer***. This comes in a letter the archbishop helped to write in the name of King Charles the Bald to Pope Hadrian II in 871, edited in Patrologia Latina. And this time there’s a surprising change in how the text is referred to. Here’s the relevant passage: “And as Leo and the synod of Bourges (Byturicensis synodus) wrote, kings and emperors, whom divine power ordered to be in charge of the earth,  have permitted to bishops the right of dealing with their own affairs according to divine constitutions…”.

Misattributing a papal decree in a letter to Pope Hadrian would have been risky, because previous popes, like Nicholas, had learned to check up on Hincmar’s citations. In any case, although a papal association for the text had been useful for Hincmar previously, it was much less so here, because the thrust of this letter was all about kings not needing to depend on papal authority. Happily, on this occasion Hincmar somehow knew the Leo text was connected to Bourges, not Rome, after all. How convenient for the wily prelate!

*** UPDATE & CORRECTION June 2017: The recent 1998 MGH edition of the letters to Pope Hadrian that Hincmar helped write in the name of King Charles actually prints “Leo ac Romana synodus” here and here, and doesn’t refer to Bourges. And it turns out that’s also what the (only) manuscript of these letters, Paris BnF Lat. 1594 (s.ix), says: e.g. on f. 152v.

Paris lat. 1594 f.152v
Paris lat. 1594 f.152v

So where did the Bourges reference come from? The Patrologia Latina edition, on which Nelson relied, is based on one by Pierre Delalande, published in 1664 in his Conciliorum Galliae. Delalande indeed wrote ‘Bourges synod” (Bituricensis Synodus), *but* he added ‘Romana’ in the margin.

Delalande, Conciliorum...Galliae, p. 265
Delalande, Conciliorum…Galliae, p. 265

It looks like Delande’s ‘Bourges’ was a hyper-correction based on his personal erudition, not on the manuscript – a hyper-correction that was carried through to Migne’s 19th-century edition’s “ut Leo ac Byturicensis synodus scripsit”, and from there into the secondary literature.

So, it turns out that Hincmar was consistent in attributing this text to Pope Leo and a Roman synod after all, even when writing to a pope: more proof that Hincmar wasn’t always as devious as some people have thought! (and more evidence I think that he really was the author of Charles’s letter – but that’s a topic for another blog).

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TRANSLATION. Note: some changes from the earlier version of the letter are marked in bold.

Leo, Victor and Eustochius  and the Roman synod sent what follows with their signatures to the bishops Sarmatio, Chariato, Desiderius, and to the priests of all the churches established within the Third Province.

The worldly authorities wished to hold the sacerdotal order in such reverence – even those whom divine power had ordered to be in charge of the earth under the imperial name – that they permitted the right of deciding cases (ius distringendorum) to be conferred to the holy bishops, according to the divine [imperial?] commands (divalia constituta). What was confirmed in the edicts of the ancient law and many times in the general laws, we find in the present time to be trampled upon by many people. For passing over the sacerdotal judgement, they pass to the examination of secular people (examen saecularium).

Therefore it seemed to us that a full punishment should avenge this insult to the holy laws and to our order in the present time, and should establish a formula to be kept in future. We accordingly decided that whoever passes over the bishop of his church and goes to the judgement (disceptatio) of the seculars will be expelled from the holy thresholds and kept away from the heavenly altar. Nor after this decision, which stands by common sentence, should anyone attempt to acquire for himself beyond what is prescribed. So may it happen that those who previously erred should correct themselves with a fitting emendation, and whoever was proven to serve in a clerical office under heavenly observation should know that he is cast out from the clergy if he passes over the judgement of bishops and goes to the authority of secular people.

We wish all individuals and everyone to recognise that what is constituted in the full order of justice and law shall take the effect of total confirmation in all the business of clerics. But if a cleric accuses a layman, let the cleric first demand to be heard by the bishop; then if he sees the layman is opposed to his demand, let him contend in the judgement of the secular moderator, with the permission of his bishop.

Bishop Leo signed
Victorius bishop signed
Eustochius bishop signed.
And all the other bishops who were there signed.

Seeking Worldly Things: the Ninth-Century Constantine the Great

Early medieval western European societies were characterised by an intrinsic tension, sometimes latent but never resolved, between the domains of the secular and the religious, set within a Christian framework – at any rate, that’s the hypothesis of this research project. The legacy of the late Roman Empire was of course essential in establishing this tension, and this blog examines one particularly interesting example of how it did so. [1]

One of the earliest occasions for arguments over the relation between clerics and external authorities was the Donatist controversy. Its origins lay in the imperial persecution of Christians in north Africa in the early fourth century. Hardly had this persecution ended than one group of Christians (known later as Donatists) accused another (who called themselves catholics) of having surrended to it, betraying the Christian faith instead of choosing glorious martyrdom. The arguments became increasingly bitter, with each group electing rival bishops. This escalation meant that after Constantine the Great’s embrace of Christianity, it was difficult for imperial authorities not to get involved.

And involved they duly became. A key source for the early stages of this dispute is a letter from Emperor Constantine himself to the catholic bishops. Stating of the Donatists that “so great a madness persists in them when with incredible arrogance they persuade themselves of things that it is not right either to say or to hear”, the letter makes it pretty clear whose side the emperor was on.[2]

But what made Constantine especially angry was the Donatists’ audacity in having appealed to him as emperor: “… I have discovered that they demand my own judgment! So strong and persevering is the wickedness of these men!” For Constantine, that meant that the Donatists “are seeking worldly things (saecularia), abandoning the heavenly (caelestia)” (a line that is unfortunately omitted in the standard English translation). The clear implication is that the Christian emperor’s judgement is worldly, that of the bishops’ heavenly.

Yet is Constantine’s letter all that it seems? Recently, the German historian Klaus Rosen has suggested not.[3] He points to various textual anomalies – possible dependence on other texts, problems with the wording, and so on – to argue that in reality it’s a forgery. An important plank of his argument is that the letter is preserved only in a single, ninth-century manuscript from Tours (Paris BnF. lat. 1711 – unfortunately not yet digitised), created some half a millennium after the supposed origin of the text it encloses. That’s not actually so unusual – lots of important Roman texts are preserved only in much later copies. But it means that strictly speaking, all we can say for certain is that the letter must have been written after c.314 (the events it describes) and before c. 850 (the date of the manuscript).

Rosen’s argument is chiefly about the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, which he thinks took place later than the current orthodoxy has it: the letter appears to contradict this by suggesting a thoroughly Christian Constantine already in 314, so it’s important for Rosen to show why it can’t be trusted. But he also ventures to connect it to disputes concerning a rather later emperor: Louis the Pious. Rosen draws particular attention to a rubric, probably written in the ninth century, which summarises the letter as follows:

“Where he [Constantine] says that the Donatist party are litigating like outsiders, denouncing, appealing, and wanting the emperor to hear them after the judgement of bishops.”[4]

Rosen never quite says that the entire letter itself was forged in the ninth century, and actually that seems to me somewhat unlikely. But he’s surely right to draw attention to the manuscript transmission, and to the rubric showing that the letter was being read, not just transcribed. In other words, an important context for the letter – and if we are to be hyper-rigorous, the only absolutely secure one – is ninth-century Tours, when it was copied out and interpreted; and that, at a time when (some) bishops were moving towards an attempt to depose one of Constantine’s imperial successors, on the grounds of the superiority of episcopal judgement, just as (Pseudo-)Constantine had set out.

The point is often and rightly made that much of the intellectual heritage of the late Roman empire was preserved thanks to Carolingian scriptoria. But what Rosen and the letter of Constantine encourage us think about is what these scribes themselves thought they were doing. Were they selflessly saving texts for 21st-century historians of late Rome, or were they more concerned with relating this material to their own ninth-century present? The answer is of course probably the latter: and that, I suggest, should give us pause for thought.

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[1] Many thanks to Conrad Leyser for bringing the text on which this blog concentrates to my attention.

[2] Translation in Optatus: Against the Donatists, ed. and tr. M. Edwards (Liverpool, 1997).

[3] Klaus Rosen, Constantin der Grosse, die Christen und der Donatistenstreit 312-314. Eine Untersuchung zu Optatus von Mileve, Appendix V, und zum Verhältnis von Staat und Kirche im 4. Jahrhundert (Paderborn, 2011).

[4] “ubi dixit quia pars Donati quomodo forenses sic litigant ut denuntient et appellent et imperatorem desiderent audire post episcoporum iudicata”.