Secularism and the medieval past

Much of the commentary on the terrible events in Paris a fortnight ago, and even more of the abundant commentary on the commentary that followed, has pivoted around the distinction between religion and the secular that is typically ascribed to the European Enlightenment. Arguments have usually boiled down to how this legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be fiercely guarded at all costs (‘European values’), or, more controversially, how it perhaps needs to be reassessed to adjust to contemporary realities (‘globalisation’).

These are of course primarily political arguments, keyed to current political positions. But they are also historical arguments, in that they both rest on a general, widely-shared view of the shape of (European) history, which for all useful purposes apparently begins with the 18th century.

In point of fact, however, the general consensus that the distinction between religion and the secular originated in the early modern period is, quite simply, not true. Doubtless it took on important new forms at that time. But most historians realise these days that supposed turning points are more historiographical than historical: that very little comes out of nowhere. A recent strand of German research, bringing together sociologists (notably Detlef Pollack) and historians, has profitably discussed whether a process of ‘differentiation’ between religion and the political sphere really began in the 11th century, with the so-called Investiture Quarrel. A similar suggestion has been made, albeit in passing, by the eminent Canadian theorist of ‘secularisation’, Charles Taylor.

Moreover, there is a venerable line of research that explores how the very concept of the ‘secular’, meaning something that is not anti-religious but rather non-religious, was honed in quite specific circumstances by 4th-century Christians as they made sense of the religious and political realities around them, as proposed by R.A. Markus and, more recently, Kate Cooper. As a consequence, modern secularism can be said to derive from a Christian worldview (not a ‘European’ one, though, since a dominant contributor to these early debates was a North African). Arguably that makes the modern concept itself inherently Christian.

Much could be written about these and other ideas. In fact, much already has been written about them in specialist circles, where they are the subjects of often heated controversy. Yet these debates have hardly registered in the copious reflections on the meaning and implications of the Paris attacks. That is not the fault of media-shy medieval historians, nor of lazy journalists content to rehash triumphalist narratives they learned at school (perhaps the most authentically long-lived product of the Enlightenment). It simply reflects the peculiar importance of the Middle Ages in the modern (European) political imaginary. It is an importance that consists, paradoxically, in not mattering at all – thereby authorising political arguments based solely on more recent history. The medieval period is never more crucial than when it acts as a foil to the present day (as pointed out by Julia McClure), and never more present than when it’s silently passed over or peremptorily dismissed.

That’s naturally aggravating for those studying these distant centuries, who find themselves condemned to a highly relevant irrelevance in wider public discourse. But isn’t this politicised depoliticisation also a pity for that public discourse, too? If we don’t realise that ‘modern values’ aren’t quite as straightforwardly modern as seems to be assumed, then the terms of debate will be hugely impoverished, even before anything has been said.

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.

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 (!): http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast235.htm

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.

Mabel of Sleaford

One of the things it can be hard to explain to the wider public is quite how fragmented History is as a field. To be sure, TV historians will cover anything and everything, but those carrying out research tend, inevitably, to be specialists in particular periods and particular places, and quite often, in particular methodologies or approaches. So, historians who focus on the earlier Middle Ages don’t tend to read later sources much.

There are of course sound reasons for this, but there are costs too. And the project I’m working on at the moment, which is taking me well into the twelfth and even thirteenth centuries, is a powerful reminder of just how much we early medievalists are missing out on as result. For those adjusted to the peculiar pleasures of making the most of scraps of evidence, looking at post-1200 records can be a disorienting experience.

This week, I was looking at early assize rolls from Lincolnshire. Assize rolls are records of English court judgements, initially kept so the king’s agents could know how much revenues they were owed in fines and penalties. From around 1200, these documents are preserved in ever-increasing volume, representing the precocity of English royal government (there’s not really anything comparable on the continent at this time). The two rolls I was looking at were made during a visit by the king’s judges to Lincoln Castle in June 1202, where they dealt with a large number of cases, including, which is what interests me, a few cases involving clerics.

Here’s one of the cases they dealt with. A woman named Mabel lived near Sleaford with her husband Godwin. At some point before June 1202, a carpenter named Alured killed Godwin. Alured had then fled into the church, which probably saved his own life, but he had to go into exile, and all his property was confiscated. The newly widowed Mabel, though, wasn’t satisfied. She accused a man called William of having held down her husband while Alured murdered him. However, William was a subdeacon, and as such, was able to claim ‘benefit of clergy’: so he was allowed to leave the courtroom, and handed over to the ecclesiastical court, or ‘court christian’. What happened to him afterwards isn’t known, but he was probably defrocked.

Mabel didn’t give up though on getting justice for poor Godwin: she next accused Alured’s wife and daughter, Juliana and Isabelle, of having advised Alured to kill him. But because Mabel wasn’t able to prove their involvement, she ended up with a fine for a false accusation, though the judges let her off – out of pity, or maybe because she couldn’t pay.

For the historian acclimatised to the wealth of legal thirteenth-century sources, much of this is fairly hum-drum. But for the early medievalist used to reading between the lines, this is a remarkable account in every way. It demonstrates that wives and daughters were plausibly involved in driving male relatives to commit murder, that women could make use of the royal court system, that practices of sanctuary actually worked, and that goods could be valued and confiscated. And to top it all, it’s specific: we know that this was all discussed in Lincoln Castle one summer, eight hundred years ago.

For my purposes, what’s particularly significant though is that William, the cleric, was able to pull the clerical card. Historians of English law have tended to play down the extent and effectiveness of ‘benefit of clergy’, arguing that it was a fairly marginal affair, more honoured in the breach than the observance. If one works primarily from the normative sources (what ought, or ought not, to have happened), that’s not surprising. Actually, just a couple of decades later, the bishop of Lincoln was writing letters complaining about royal judges putting clerics on trial. So clearly claims of exemption didn’t always work, and maybe weren’t even always made.

Yet in this particular instance, it probably saved someone’s life. And – though here I’m speculating – it made a difference to Mabel too, denying her what she would probably have seen as justice. Historians, then, might say that clerical exemption wasn’t a major issue in medieval England. I suspect Mabel would have strongly disagreed.

The invention of tradition in the Middle Ages

Often, and not just in popular perception, the Middle Ages is characterised as static, trapped under the heavy weight of the past (indeed, an influential strand of modern argument even suggests that people in the Middle Ages had no real concept of the  future at all). It’s certainly true that old texts played an absolutely crucial role in medieval western society – the Bible, of course, but also other works inherited from Late Antiquity. Yet of course even the most ancient texts require interpretation, and here there was room for creativity and, whether people knew it or not, change.

A good example of this, which I’ve come across in the course of my current research, is provided by a couple of passages in the influential collection of church law put together by the lawyer Gratian in the middle of the twelfth century. Gratian used two texts (C.11, Q.1, D.18 and D.31), attributed to Pope Pius and Pope Fabian, to show that clerics who disobey or attack their bishops are to be handed over to the secular court (traditio curiae) for punishment, after their deposition. Gratian found this a bit difficult to square with his general position, that clerics should not be punished by secular courts. But he argued that since it only applied to civil, not criminal, cases, it was just about OK.

What Gratian didn’t know was that Popes Fabian and Pius were not, as he assumed, ancient Romans, but rather figments of fertile ninth-century imagination. They were created as part of the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals, a largely fictional text dreamed up for reasons that remain to this day somewhat mysterious (though historians are getting there!). Still, its compilers did not invent their texts from scratch, and for the ‘traditio curiae’ bit, they drew on authentic Roman law: all they really did was put it instead into the mouths of made-up popes. So up to a point, Gratian was indeed drawing on genuinely ancient texts, even if they had been filtered through ninth-century ingenuity.

But that Roman law had not meant what Gratian, or quite probably Pseudo-Isidore, thought it meant. In late Roman law, the curia was the city council, serving on which was a major obligation for late Roman elites, since it involved taking responsibility for raising the city’s taxes – a risky thing to do. Clerics were usually exempt from this burden, but under certain circumstances, that exemption could be removed. That was what the Roman law had originally meant, when it talked about the  traditio curiae: it was about returning the (former) clerics back into ruinous curial service.

Just what Pseudo-Isidore thought it meant in the ninth century isn’t entirely clear. But by the twelfth century, when Gratian was writing, curia definitely meant something entirely different: it meant a prince’s ‘court’. It’s no surprise then that Gratian happily interpreted the traditio curiae along lines that made sense to him: for Gratian, it meant handing the cleric over to the ‘secular’ court for disciplining. In this way, Gratian unwittingly transformed late Roman urban administration into practices of feudal justice, with significant consequences for later history: an invention of ‘tradition’ in quite a literal sense.

The take-home point in all this isn’t though simply that Gratian got it wrong. It’s a reminder of something that should be obvious, but that bears restating. Even when they’re copied faithfully across the generations, texts don’t – can’t – mean exactly the same thing a thousand years after they were written, when so much else has changed. Texts, even religious ones, always need context to make sense of them. To assume that any old text doesn’t need interpretation just makes the interpretative act invisible. Historians, in a word, are indispensible. But that you knew already.

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Secularity in the Middle Ages

It’s often assumed that there was no such thing as the ‘secular’ in the European Middle Ages. How could there be, when the public authorities were firmly and whole-heartedly committed to promoting religious observance,  even burning heretics when required? Wasn’t the secular invented along with rationality and progress by the Enlightenment?

However, we need to be careful not to confuse ‘secular’ with ‘atheist’. In fact, it can be argued that the secular is hard-wired into Christianity, as a religion (more controversially, it’s also been argued that secularity is an intrinsically Christian concept: but that’s a debate for another blog post!).

Early Christian thinkers, most notably Augustine of Hippo, were careful to distinguish things that were religious from things that were polluted (e.g. pagan sacrifice); but they also had a third category, of things that were neither inherently positive nor evil. For instance, Christians ought to obey pagan rulers, provided they were legitimate and did not command the faithful to carry out impious acts. Political authority could be in this sense secular.

This stance of neutrality has often been attributed to the circumstances of the religion’s origins: Christ was crucified by the Romans, but his followers (or most of them, anyway) did not call for the empire’s destruction. After all, had Christ not said that ‘My kingdom is not of his world’ [John 8:36]?

Of course, Christianity eventually took over the empire, and historians like R.A. Markus have talked of the secular being ‘drained out’ of the world as a consequence. Yet my initial findings suggest that we should tread carefully. People kept on reading the Church Fathers, including those who’d written before the Empire became Christian, long after circumstances had changed dramatically. Ideas about the secular might have changed, but we shouldn’t assume the concept itself just went away.

I came across an excellent example of this yesterday. In the late 12th century – many centuries after Augustine – Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, came into conflict with King Henry II of England over, among other things, the extent to which he and his church were subject to royal jurisdiction. One of the king’s claims was that even though Thomas was a cleric, he still had to come before the royal court concerning land that had been given to him: property was ultimately a matter for kings to decide about, not bishops.

But a near-contemporary biographer of Thomas, William FitzStephen, was having none of it:

[The property] was secular: given to God, it was made ecclesiastical. Secularity was absorbed in it by a claim of divine right. Hence the secular court has no right to hold the archbishop liable”*

(translation in Staunton, The Lives of Thomas Becket).

The Latin word translated as ‘secularity’ here is secularitas. What did William FitzStephen mean by that word, and by talking about the ‘absorption’ of the secular? Was he arguing that church land was holy, and outside even a Christian king’s control? In which case, was he suggesting (even if only rhetorically) that King Henry was a ‘secular’ ruler?

I admit that I’m not yet entirely sure of the answers to these questions. But I do think that ruling out the secular from the Middle Ages would not be a good place to start if we want to find out.

Charles West (@pseudo_isidore)

* For the keen Latinists, here’s the crucial text:
Fuit secularis; data Deo, facta est ecclesiastica. Absorpta est in ea secularitas a titulo divini juris
From Materials for the History of Thomas Becket (Rolls Series), vol. 3, p. 60.

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A research project blog by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield)