Category Archives: translations

“Certainly God is angry with us” – a sermon on the Vikings

In a previous blog, I gave some (admittedly lighthearted) advice on how to fend off a vampire attack, culled from a twelfth-century chronicle. In a slightly more serious tone, this blog’s about how to defend against the Vikings.

It’s a truism of the lecture-hall, the textbook and the documentary to point out that the Vikings didn’t write down their side of the story, at least not in the early Middle Ages. But nor did their secular opponents, at least not on a large scale. Instead, we’re dependent on texts produced by their ecclesiastical victims.  Historians mostly draw on monastic annals of one kind or another – the Annals of St-Vaast are a particular favourite for this purpose, filled with terror and horror at the Scandinavian depredations.  In other words, the perspective on the Vikings from the written sources is thoroughly ‘monastic’.

Actually, though, other kinds of texts do survive that shed a somewhat different light. In the course of research into a forthcoming article, I came across a short but very rich sermon by the Paris monk Abbo of St-Germain-des-Pres, written around 900 or so, and was so delighted by it that I’ve made a quick translation (I think the first into any modern language) so more people can read it too:

Abbo’s theme was how to fend off the Viking attacks. What makes his sermon especially interesting is that it seems to be aimed at Carolingian lay aristocrats. This is still a monastic text, then, but it’s one that’s reaching out beyond the monastery, and not written purely or even primarily for monastic consumption.

It’s pitched at a fairly low level, in very straightforward Latin and with an easy-to-follow take-home argument. The main thrust is that the Vikings are a punishment from God for moral and ethical failings: “But how are you able to please God and to have victory, you who always have your hands full of perjury and rapine?”. Abbo draws on Biblical and Roman history to underline the point, and also draws on British history too (contemporary or ancient?) as a warning of what might happen if things don’t improve.

It’s however the last paragraph that’s perhaps the most interesting of all. Despite the general argument that what’s required is moral reform, Abbo concludes not by urging fasting or donations to the church, but by urging his audience to go out to battle:

Do not let your enemies multiply and grow but, as Scripture commends, fight for your homeland (patria), do not fear to die in God’s war (bellum Dei). Certainly if you die there, you will be holy martyrs. And know truly that no man will die before his term, foreknown by God. A man is not able to be killed amongst all the swords, if it is not his time. For it is written, “You have set the limits which they cannot pass”. And therefore enter confidently into the Lord God’s war. And when you enter into God’s war, shout out with a loud voice, “Christ conquers, Christ rules, Christ commands!”.

Abbo here encourages his listeners to go out and face death, with an interesting combination of ideas of holy war and fate: Beowulf meets First Crusade. Whether this kind of pep-talk worked, we can’t of course know. But Frankish armies did win quite a few battles around this time – and Abbo’s sermon is maybe as close to their state of mind as we’re likely ever to get.

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The village in crisis: the judgement of Courtisols, 847

I write this blog on my way back from an inspiring workshop held in Vienna on early medieval local identities (the programme is online here). A published volume is in preparation, but to whet your appetite, I’ve taken advantage of free airport wifi to provide a rough English translation of a text that was presented there by Steffen Patzold – an account of a trial at the French village of Courtisols. (You can read a recent discussion of it by Josiane Barbier in the book on Hincmar that Rachel Stone and I edited).

The text records how some residents of this early medieval village near Chalons-sur-Marne claimed to be free, but lost their case when a considerable number of their neighbours testified against them in court. It’s a great example of how an early medieval village community could be split down the middle by the intervention of a lord (in this case Archbishop Hincmar) – or, from a different perspective, how factions within a village could harness the power of the lord for their own purposes (who, after all, had started the rumour about the upstarts’ original unfreedom?).

The judgment of Courtisols, 13 May 847

“On the command of Archbishop HINCMAR, his legates – that is Sigloard the priest and head of the school of the holy church of Rheims, and the noble Dodilo vassalus of the bishop – came to Courtisols. Sitting at the public court, and investigating the justice of Saint Remi and of the already mentioned lord [Hincmar], they heard a rumour [sonus] about the mancipia[1] whose names are given below, and about their genealogy: that they rightly ought to be servi and ancillae,[2] because their grandmothers Berta and Avila had been bought by the lord’s price. The above-mentioned legates, when they heard this, diligently looked into the matter.

These are the names of those who were present and questioned: Grimold, Warmher, Leuthad, Ostrold, Adelard, Ivoia, and the daughter Hildiardis.[3] They said in response “That is not so, for we ought to be free by birth”.

The already mentioned legates asked if there was anyone there who knew the truth of this matter or who wanted to prove it. Then very old witnesses came forward, whose names are these: Hardier, Tedic, Odelmar, Sorulf, Gisinbrand, Gifard, Teuderic.[4] And they testified that their origin had been bought by the lord’s price, and that they ought by justice and law more to be servi and ancillae than free men and free women.

Then the legates asked if the witnesses against them were telling the truth. They [the mancipia] saw and accepted the truth and proof of the matter, and at once re-entrusted themselves, and re-pledged the service that had been unjustly held back and neglected for so many days, through the judgement of the scabini[5], whose names are these: Geimfrid, Ursold, Frederic, Urslaud, Hroderaus, Herleher, Ratbert, Gislehard.

ENACTED in Courtisols on the 4th Ides of May in the public court, in the sixth year of the reign of the glorious King Charles; and in the third year of the rule of Archbishop Hincmar of the holy see of Reims.

Sign: I Sigloard the priest was present and subscribed with my own hand to all these truthful matters. I Heronod the chancellor signed. I Dodilo signed with my own hand. Sign of Leidrad the monk. Sign of Adroin the mayor. Sign of Gozfred the advocate. Sign of Flotgis. Sign of Guntio. Sign of Betto. Sign of Rigfred. Sign of Urinus. Sign of Alacramn, Altiaud, Balsmus, Balthard, Fredemar, Tuehtar, Atuhar, Geroard, Wido, Righard, Amalhad, Rafold, Alter, Amalbert.[6] I Hairoald the chancellor authorised and signed.

The above mentioned witnesses also proved that Teutbert and Blithelm were by origin servi, and they repledged their service in that court meeting, by the judgement of the scabini whose names are written above.”


[1] Mancipia is a term that generally means ‘unfree people’, and that would traditionally be translated as ‘slaves’. In property transfer records, mancipia are listed as part of an estate’s assets, along with livestock and agricultural infrastructure.

[2] Ie, male and female slaves/servants.

[3] These people are listed in the estate survey for Courtisols that was made around the same time (in the polyptych of St-Remi). It is to be noted that many of them were joint tenants of holdings along with people of free status, which may well be why they claimed that they were free too.

[4] All these witnesses were legally-free inhabitants of Courtisols.

[5] Scabini were residents who enjoyed a special status: something like jurors or local councillors.

[6] Most of these names were other residents of Courtisols.

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