Category Archives: manuscripts

Frankly speaking, can you kill your wife? Or, why typos cost lives.

In 860, an archbishop of Rheims called Hincmar was asked whether a king, Lothar II, could divorce his wife, Theutberga, and marry someone else. Hincmar wrote an extremely long treatise in reply, which Rachel Stone and I have been steadily translating for the last few years for Manchester University Press, that dealt with all the aspects of the case.  Amongst these was a hint from the king that if the answer was no, then he might choose what we would call the ‘Henry VIII solution’ – have Theutberga executed, then remarry.

Hincmar tackled this hint by quoting St Augustine of Hippo.  The law of the Roman Empire and of the Old Testament both permitted a husband to execute his adulterous wife, while Christian morals taught that a husband could not marry again while his wife was still alive.  It would obviously be best for him neither to kill his wife nor to marry again while she was alive: but if necessary, he should do what was permitted, which was execution. If he didn’t, then he could not remarry.

That all seems perfectly clear. The only problem is that this isn’t quite what Augustine said. Augustine thought in paragraphs, not sentences, and Hincmar slyly ended his quotation before Augustine had concluded that in fact, it would be better to marry again than to spill blood, no matter what the law said (see below for the full Augustine text).

What’s more, in the bit that Hincmar does quote, there’s a slight but significant change in the text: the Latin ‘si licet’ (= if it is permitted) has become ‘scilicet’ (=that is to say, certainly). Augustine had reservations about the secular law’s permission to execute, a tone of doubt – “If it is permitted”. Hincmar’s version of Augustine had neither doubt nor reservation. (See the picture above for the text).

This tiny textual variant isn’t common in the transmission of Augustine’s work. It might be scribal error, but it does seem a rather convenient one. Wherever this extra letter ‘c’ came from, the Frankish prelate was evidently a little more relaxed about uxoricide than the African bishop had been. Hincmar had a different attitude to how Christian law and ‘secular’ law could fit together, which wasn’t too great for Theutberga.

In the end, though, the queen escaped execution. What happened next? Well, you’ll have to wait till the book’s out… 

Hincmar, De Divortio, Extract
‘As Saint Augustine says (…), “Finally I ask of you, whether it is licit for a Christian husband, according either to the old law of God or by Roman laws, to kill an adulteress. Certainly [Augustine: If it is permitted], it is better that he should restrain himself from both, that is the permitted punishment for she who has sinned, and from an illicit marriage while she is alive.  But if he insists on choosing one, it is better for him to do what is allowed, so that the adulteress may be punished, than to do that which is not allowed, that while she is alive he commits adultery. But if, as is truly said, it is not allowed for a Christian man to kill his adulterous wife, but only to send her away…”

Hincmar continues: ‘…it is on this condition, that he may either live in continence or be reconciled to her, since if while she is alive he marries another, he too will without doubt be guilty of adultery’.

Original Augustine continues: ‘… who is so mad who would say to him, Do what is not permitted, so that what is not permitted to you will be permissible? For since both things are illicit according to the law of Christ, that is to kill an adulterous wife or to marry someone else while she is still alive, both should be refrained from, rather than doing the illicit for the illicit. But if he must do what is not allowed, let him commit adultery and not murder, so that he shall marry someone else while his wife is still alive and not shed human blood. Yet if two things are nefarious, he ought not to perpetrate one for the sake of the other, but avoid both’.

The last words of a crusader. Or, why archives are sceau exciting

Today I visited the departmental archive of the Haute Marne, in the quiet eastern French town of Chaumont. I’m interested in how monastic communities dealt with ‘secular justice’ – building on my earlier research into Carolingian advocacy – and I was chasing up a few leads. Archives are places of wonder, though, and you never know what you’ll stumble across, even when the material’s been carefully catalogued. And this piece made me pause.

AD HM 9 H 19 (1)

It’s a charter that records how Geoffrey IV of Joinville, ancestor of the famous Jean de Joinville, gave up certain rights over an estate formally owned by the monastery of St-Urbain.

It’s not much to look at, admittedly. In fact, it’s a singularly scrappy piece of parchment, no more than 10cm high.  Geoffrey, it seems, was letting standards slip.

But that’s understandable when we take into account how and when the charter was produced. When he made it, Geoffrey was taking part in the long siege of Acre (1189-1191), part of the so-called ‘Third Crusade’. Geoffrey promised that the grant would be valid whether he lived or died. He was presumably hoping for the former, but it turned out to be the latter. His brother Geoffrey V nevertheless later dutifully confirmed the grant, this time with a much nicer piece of parchment, with a surviving seal. Geoffrey V also brought back his brother’s remains for burial.

And by the looks of it, he (or someone) also brought back this slip of parchment, too, which gives every impression of having been hastily drafted in a tent outside the city. Unimpressive though it may seem, it was carefully preserved by the monks of St-Urbain, along with his brother’s more formal confirmation.

As it happens, the charter hasn’t been edited (at least as far as I know) – but a normal edition of the text alone couldn’t, I think, transmit the fascination exerted by the original. Not in spite of its scrappiness, but because of it.

Marginal gains, or a Red Letter Day

f3v closeup

This blog is primarily about the Turbulent Priests project, but between now and December 2014, I’m based in Tübingen, courtesy of the Humboldt Foundation, and working on something rather different, which I think of as Project Humbert (it’s about an 11th-century reformer of that name). It’s this that took me to the Royal Library in Brussels to look at a 12th-century manuscript, known as Brussels BR 9706-25.

You might be forgiven for wondering whether it’s really justifiable for medieval historians to make such visits these days. In this case as in many others, the manuscript’s constituent texts have long been edited (since the 1970s). And even if they hadn’t been, I could just have contacted the library, and, for a fee, have requested a black and white microfilm to scroll through at my leisure.  I didn’t know that there was anything specifically interesting about this manuscript – I just felt I ought to go and see it, because I was interested in its contents (which are only found in a handful of manuscripts). For those controlling research fund purse-strings, arguments like this might not seem terribly compelling.

And as the train chugged through the flat Belgian landscape, I wondered whether this was really just an elaborate form of procrastination, or a ritual that medieval historians still dutifully carry out in imitation of the great Studienreisen of the 19th-century when these manuscript collections were first catalogued properly. No wonder that in an era of digitised reproductions, the death of the travel grant is frequently predicted. Maybe we should all just stay in our offices, and get on with some screen-work like everyone else.

Still, I went anyway – and I’m glad I did. It turned out that the manuscript in question has nota marks in the margin: basically NBs, drawing attention to particular sections. That hadn’t been mentioned by any of the editions – understandably, since the goal of most editions is to reconstruct the original ‘pure’ text, not to track readers’ responses. And in themselves, such marks are hardly unusual in medieval manuscripts. Then as now, readers annotated what they were reading. Unless these marks can be dated, though, it’s difficult to make much of them; and most of the time, they can’t be.

In this manuscript, however, I noticed that the nota marks had been decorated with red ink – the same red ink used to decorate other bits of the manuscript (what’s known technically as rubrication). I know what you’re thinking. “Wow! That suggests that the marks had been written *along with* the text – that they had been added not by some later reader, but by the scribes who conscientiously copied out both the text and marginal notes: in other words, they probably came from the exemplar that this manuscript was based on.”

And that makes them altogether more interesting. The annotated texts in question are 11th-century ones, from the era of the papal reform, and were probably put together in southern Italy – so the nota marks are potentially evidence for how 11th-century people read these texts, quite soon after their compilation. And that raises all kinds of interesting questions, not least because the sections annotated seem to chime with key themes of 11th-century church reform. So, suddenly, I was looking at fresh evidence.

I haven’t fully worked through the implications of this yet. But I’m struck that the detail of the rubrication simply wouldn’t have been visible in a black and white reproduction. True, a full colour digital image would have shown it up (if one were available – and they’re often expensive). But with no particular reason to suppose that the marginalia would prove so interesting, I would have been much less likely to leaf through every page, staring at every detail, had I not travelled for four hours to get there, grimly determined to make the trip worthwhile.

Granted, this was a serendipitious outcome. But isn’t serendipity important in most fields of research? So, next time you see a historian of medieval Europe patiently sitting on a train or plane to some library or archive, don’t ask whether she’s wasting her time, or her department’s budget, or even public funds, and why she didn’t just go on line like everyone else, and anyway isn’t all her evidence well-known? Wish her luck – who knows what she might be about to find.