Category Archives: reform

Fragments of history – or, why judges shouldn’t get married

One of the joys of being a historian of the early Middle Ages is working with fragmentary evidence: artefacts shorn of clear and definite context, and isolated, often incomplete texts that are at first sight inscrutable – and that often remain so even after further inspection. This blog’s about one of these fragments that I stumbled across in the course of my research into clerical exemption.

At the end of a ninth-century canon law manuscript now in Florence, a slightly later hand entered a passage that appears to be an imperial decree prohibiting secular judges from getting married. Here’s a draft English translation from the (rather tricky) Latin.[1]

About the life and continence of judges.
Moreover, it is permitted to none of the judges giving the law in our sacred palace or elsewhere in our kingdoms to contract marriages. This is so that they should not be led by love of their children to leave the path of truth and law, and to unjustly seize other people’s property for the ambition of their children, using their judgements for their advantage. But let them despise the delights of this wicked world, and hold to the norm of truth in all things, in customs, apparel and the signs of all goodness, and as we determined above in another capitulary, let them imitate the religious priests, and adhere in all things to their laws.

What should the historian think, faced with such a text? The first reaction is surely that this must be a forgery. No Roman, Carolingian or Ottonian emperor ever issued any command like this, at least not to my knowledge. Rulers often did worry about judges’ private interests interfering with their decisions, but there was never a prohibition on secular judges getting married. That would have gone against the grain of how medieval society worked. The text is entirely unprecedented.

But that observation doesn’t exhaust the text’s interest. The parallel it draws between judges and priests, urging the former to imitate the latter, is fascinating. Arguments about priestly marriage flared up in Western Europe in the eleventh century, but they did so on the basis of earlier anxieties and concerns. This little text, which is probably tenth- or early eleventh-century, illustrates that point very neatly. It looks like before Pope Leo IX and his circle came together, someone was already hard at work constructing a legal precedent to support a stronger line on married priests, by fair means or foul.

Of course, the aim of establishing a continent (and eventually celibate) priesthood was to create a sharper distinction between the laity and the priesthood. So it’s ironic that this author sought to justify the position with reference to secular law, and secular judges. Perhaps that’s why the text doesn’t seem to have circulated?

Update (11.01.17). In light of the very useful comments on this blog, I’ve realised Kaiser’s text might repay more detailed attention. So I’ve ordered a copy of the relevant folios to examine the palaeography more closely (and now have an excuse to visit the library in Florence, too). I’ll keep you posted!


[1] Edited by Wolfgang Kaiser, Authentizität und Geltung Spätantiker Kaisergesetze (Munich, 2007), p. 204, n. 12, from Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana Edili 82. Kaiser provides no commentary other than to observe that this Heiratsverbot seems neither to be in any other manuscript nor to have been edited before. I have not yet been able to see the manuscript.

Latin (from Kaiser):
De vita et continentia iudicum. Nulli praeterea ex iudicibus nostris sacro palatio iura dantibus vel in omnibus regnorum nostrorum finibus liceat contrahere matrimonium (interlinear: id est mulierem) ne forte filiorum inducti diligentia a veritati et legis declinantes semita aliena iniuste subrepta ambitione filiorum ad opus eorundem per sua trahant discrimina sed huius noxii contempnentes (interlinear: id est respuentes) saeculi delicias normam veritatis ubique teneant moribus vestibus atque totius bonitatis insignibus sicut superios in alio capitulo statuimus religiosorum sacerdotum imitentur eorumque per omnia inhereant legibus.

How (not) to edit a medieval chronicle

The medieval chronicler Hugh of Flavigny has recently been in the UK news, after Marc Morris suggested that some biographers of William the Conqueror have been misreading his chronicle. A passage which has been taken as describing King William as ‘jovial’ in fact refers to someone else entirely.

How important this is for our knowledge of William the Conqueror I shall leave to others to decide – you can read Marc Morris’s new popular biography of the king for yourselves. But the issue brings back into focus a rather neglected chronicler – and also raises interesting questions about how we re-present texts that were written centuries ago.

It’s true that Hugh of Flavigny isn’t much read outside a fairly narrow circle today. But he ought to be! He observed at close quarters the struggles between pope and emperor in the late eleventh century, for which he’s a very important source. And while he didn’t describe King William as ‘jovial’, Hugh did visit England in the 1090s as part of a diplomatic mission

In fact he recounts some lurid stories about the country. For instance, he recalls how the archbishop of York Gerard was caught in secret conversation with the devil, planning to feed his guests with bewitched pork as part of a satanical ritual; and how Gerard’s brother, a cleric at the king’s chapel named Peter, confessed to becoming pregnant after intercourse with a man, and died from the resulting growth (no, I’m not making it up! Here’s the Latin).

With this sort of content, you might think the time is ripe for a translation of Hugh (to my knowledge, there isn’t one, in any language). And you’d be right. But first of all, what we actually need is a new edition of the original Latin. We currently rely on the edition of Georg Pertz, produced in 1848. For its time, this was an excellent piece of work. But as has recently been pointed out by Mathias Lawo, it doesn’t really do justice to Hugh’s chronicle, which survives in just one copy – in fact what seems to be Hugh’s own personal manuscript (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Phillipps 1870).

Here’s a picture of a page from Pertz’s 19th-century edition:

HF p. 354

Now, compare that with a picture of the original 11th-century manuscript, courtesy of the Berlin State Library,  on which that same page was based:


As is clear just by looking at the original with all its marginal insertions, Hugh added to his chronicle as he wrote it – as he found new sources, or as his personal priorities changed over his eventful career. It seems that his purpose in writing changed as time went on: his chronicle went from being mostly about his own monastery in Verdun, to being about wider questions of church reform – and then to being about his new monastery, Flavigny. But this is obscured by the 1848 edition, which squeezes Hugh’s messy text into the neat format of a printed book.

In some cases, it’s not even clear where in his text Hugh meant to insert his additions. But the edition had to put the text somewhere in the linear flow, so Georg Pertz had to make decisions. Those decisions weren’t necessarily bad ones, but they’re invisible to the reader encountering the text in this way. As a result, Pertz’s edition in a way creates a text that never existed. It’s hardly going too far to say that when we read Pertz’s edition, what we’re reading is a 19th-century interpretation of Hugh’s chronicle.

A stop-gap revised edition has been made available by the MGH (thanks to Ed Roberts for pointing this out to me), which ‘highlights’ all of Hugh’s later additions. But what’s really required is a new edition as a type-face facsimile of the original – not technically possible in Pertz’s day, but perfectly practical nowadays.  Then we could read not only the words that Hugh wrote: but read them in the right order, too. Any volunteers?

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Pope Leo! Or, a sketch about a dead parrot

In whimsical moments, I sometimes think how fun it would be to write a book that explored the major lineaments of the European early Middle Ages through animal-human interaction.  It could start with the ponies of the nomads who helped bring down the Empire, then consider the diminishing size of post-Roman livestock. There’d be a chapter on  Merovingian sea-monsters, another on Charlemagne’s elephant, and inevitably there’d be one on how the boundaries between human and animal were ‘negotiated’ through bestiality, a matter of concern in some penitential texts (and occasionally outside them).  It would have to consider microbes – do they count? – and a final chapter would emphasise that so much of what we know depends on animal skin (ie, parchment).

But there’d also be a chapter on an animal that I encountered  in the course of my current research: Pope Leo IX’s parrot.

The pope received his parrot as a gift from the king of Dalamarcie, probably around 1050.  There’s some debate as to where Dalamarcie was, but the most likely guess is Denmark. That would make the king in question Swein (who contemplated conquering England like his Viking ancestors).  It’s not clear where Swein had sourced the bird, but most medieval parrots came ultimately from India.

This was not just any old parrot, though – this was a miraculous parrot. On the way to Rome, it kept on saying ‘I am going to the pope’. And when it was presented, it spontaneously (?) exclaimed ‘Pope Leo!’.  [For the full story, see the extract below].

Pope Leo IX is a celebrated figure in medieval history, famous for his role in church reform – attacking clerical marriage and simony, and strongly asserting the superiority of St Peter’s see within the church. He had also been deeply affected by the attack of a demonic toad  (!) during his childhood, which one might imagine would encourage a degree of circumspection about animals.

Yet  the Toul Life of Pope Leo IX, from which this information comes, makes it clear that this deeply serious man was thrilled by the gift of a bird that talked (presumably in Latin). Whenever implementing Church Reform and papal primacy just got a bit much, Leo would go to his rooms, and be cheered up by listening to his parrot saying ‘Pope Leo’, over and over again.

It’s revealing that the bird was not taught to say ‘Libertas Ecclesiae!’, or ‘Simoniaca haeresis!’, or other church reform catch-phrases. Perhaps it was enough for the embattled Pope to hear someone, at least, providing unconditional recognition of his status, unlike all the troublesome bishops or kings who wouldn’t do as they were told (some of whom were, unlike the parrot, miraculously struck dumb). It’s also interesting that this odd anecdote reached the ears of a writer in far-off Toul, hundreds of miles away from Rome. Evidently it was widely discussed.

Pope Leo died in 1054. One might wonder whether his successor, Victor II, would have found the parrot’s constant repetition of ‘Pope Leo!’ quite as endlessly entertaining.  Luckily for him, he did not have to put up with it. For according to a number of manuscripts, the parrot fell into Leo’s grave and died ‘from excessive grief’, ‘as if it were unwilling to live without him’. Leo’s affection for his divinely-inspired pet was, apparently, reciprocated.

Extract from the Life of Pope Leo IX, tr. Robinson (The Papal Reform of the 11th Century, Manchester, 2004)

Among the many who strove to visit his [Leo’s] presence, the king of Denmark sent him a parrot as a gift, in which divine grace appeared through an admirable virtue. Certain birds can indeed be mastered by hunger and taught to pronounce human words; but it is said that this bird without compulsion throughout the journey on which he was brought to the lord pontiff continued to say, ‘I am going to the pope.’ Immediately on being presented to him, without being taught, the bird exclaimed in a sweet voice, ‘Pope Leo!’ Whenever this venerable pastor, fatigued by the conduct of business, retired to his private room or when some sadness chanced to oppress his mind, afflicted by excessive cares, this bird often alleviated his distress and, by sweetly and succinctly repeating ‘Pope Leo’, he restored his mental vigour.

Cover image: a 15th-century parrot, from a manuscript in Denmark (!):

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.