How a monk blew up a Carolingian kingdom

In April 862, King Lothar II held a council at Aachen to seal his divorce with Queen Theutberga, on the grounds of her previous incestuous relationship with her brother, Hubert, which he argued made her incapable of marriage. But in June 863, the council of Metz instead seems to have justified the divorce on the grounds that Lothar had previously been married to Waldrada. Why had the justification changed? Why the tactical swerve?

The treatise provided here in a draft English translation for the first time gives us a clue. With great erudition, it mercilessly – we might say forensically – takes apart the 862 arguments for Lothar’s divorce. Fornication or adultery could be cause for separation, but never remarriage; and any sins committed by either partner before a marriage were not carried into it, provided they had been repented for. If a woman was chaste – ie, faithful to her husband – within a marriage, then her past no longer mattered, no matter how ‘polluted’ it was. Just because a woman had previously committed incest, that did not mean that a subsequent marriage was incestuous.

The treatise seems to have been written in response to the 862 Aachen council. Very likely its author was Ratramnus of Corbie, a brilliant monk-scholar. And after this treatise was received, Lothar’s advisors had to change tack. Their new argument, that a pre-existing marriage invalidated a subsequent one, was far stronger, but it was also unconvincing in being raised so belatedly. No wonder that Pope Nicholas I didn’t buy it, with all the consequences that flowed from there.

The title of this blog is perhaps somewhat hyperbolic. But it seems probable that Ratramnus’s superb handling of patristic commentaries, canon law and biblical passages brought home to Lothar’s court that their previous arguments were going nowhere: and the desperate U-turn in their position that ensued surely left Lothar’s kingdom, and his kingship, more vulnerable. Flip-flops are never a good political look.

But the treatise is also significant in its own right. It’s one of the most synthetic and developed commentaries on marriage from the Carolingian period (alongside Hincmar’s De Divortio, of course), and notable in particular for its depiction of marriage as representing a ‘fresh start’ for even the most sinful spouse, and for its emphasis on equality of treatment for both husband and wife. It’s an interesting example of how politics and intellectual enquiry fed off one another in Carolingian Francia.

TRANSLATION (opens pdf)

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