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Policing periodisation; or, the Carolingian poverty debate

When historians point out that something familiar in later periods was attested, and maybe quite normal, in the period they study too, they can find themselves accused of ‘precursorism’ – that is, the mechanical assertion that the antecedents of something really lie in a more distant past, in an anachronistic way (e.g. claiming that the Middle Ages were ‘democratic’, etc.). Sometimes the charge may be justified, but we should be careful that it isn’t being used simply as a means of discounting awkward evidence, evidence that poses a healthy challenge to conventional historical orthodoxies: that it’s not just policing periodisation, so to speak.

Here’s a case in point. Christianity was ambivalent about personal wealth from the very earliest days (as recently discussed by Peter Brown), but it’s generally agreed that calls for the medieval Church as an institution to return to a state of poverty only came somewhat later. The conventional chronology would suggest that this began in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with various heretical movements, developed in the Franciscan poverty debates of the thirteenth century, and culminated in the critiques expressed in the Reformation. That chronology implies these calls were a response to the growth in wealth, autonomy and self-consciousness of the post-Gregorian Church of the eleventh century. After all, as a thousand textbooks repeat, “there was no separation of State and Church in Charlemagne’s empire”, and so criticism of this kind wasn’t really thinkable earlier.[1]

However, a text in a manuscript from Auxerre suggests that it’d be worth rethinking some of these assumptions. I make no claim to have discovered this text myself (alas), which was edited by Guy Lobrichon in 2012, but it seems to me to be interesting enough to bring to the attention of a wider anglophone audience. It’s a treatise written in response to unnamed critics who were apparently pointing out that there is no biblical justification for a property-owning Church. At 30 pages long, it’s much too long to translate here in its entirety, but here’s a sample in English.

  1. There are many within the holy Church who assert in different ways but with a single aim that it [the Church] ought not to have accepted property or slaves or other gifts from the faithful, or if accepted, that it ought not to keep them. And they look in the holy scriptures for an authority justifying that the faithful should rationally have given these things, or the leaders of the churches should have accepted them, or their successors should have kept them without guilt. They say that the Church ought to be content with the poverty of apostolic times. But if that is so, then it will have the same small size [of those times] too. And just as the religious order has grown through the accumulation of time, so gradually the scarcity of the starting point will return …
  2. It is clear to all those considering it carefully, how in the Old and the New Testament the status religionis grew according to the words of the holy lesson. For Abel is read to have taken gifts to the Lord, but not to have put them on an altar. However Noah, growing a little further in religion, built an altar and made a sacrifice to the Lord from all his unstained flock…
  3. And whoever thinks that he can usurp church property consecrated to God and keep it and turn it to his own uses with impunity, let him be warned by the punishment of Achan who brought about a great disturbance of the people of Israel and a terrible fate for himself and his household, because he usurped things that had been consecrated to the Lord….”

As Lobrichon says in his excellent discussion, we might believe that we are reading a polemicist attacking the Waldensians or Francis of Assisi: were it not that the manuscript is from the ninth century.

Now, it can be doubtless be argued that the treatise is exceptional and unrepresentative. So it may be. Still, somebody (probably in Burgundy) put a great deal of effort into it, and painstakingly trawled through the Bible to find passages that supported his point (unless he relied on an already existing compendium, which is also possible). Perhaps he made up a debate with non-existent people – even so, the question of institutional poverty had crossed his mind.

To suggest on the basis of this text alone that there was a ‘Carolingian poverty debate’ comparable to that of the Franciscans would be precursorism, to be sure. Yet it surely also matters that people were thinking about what poverty meant, and whether the institutional church should own property, of what kind and how much, long before St Francis stripped off in Assisi, and even long before Pope Gregory VII started firing off his remarkable letters. If that poses a problem to conventional chronologies, then that’s something we need to think about, and not ignore.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

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[1] This quotation is in fact drawn from Hoppenbrouwers and Blockmans’ Introduction to Medieval Europe, but it’s a typical sentiment to be found in many general textbooks of medieval Europe (especially those written by later medievalists!).

8 thoughts on “Policing periodisation; or, the Carolingian poverty debate”

  1. Thanks Charles – as ever, really interesting post! I am wary of the ‘this only happened then and not before’ argument too, because often it’s also paired with an idea of a more cruel, primitive, autocratic and so on past which was immediately discredited once *this thing* happened or *that thought* was thought (democracy is a good example!!). I much prefer the idea that people could have innovative or indeed horrible thoughts or do innovative or horrible things at pretty much any time in history! But I suppose I am a hopeless relativist 🙂

    1. Well, of course I agree! Though unfortunately I think it’s not always either/or when it comes to innovation and doing horrible things 🙂
      But it’d be a lifetime’s work to point out false ‘beginnings’ of things. And probably not REF-able 🙂

  2. Quite! I’d also like to add (on a quite topical note) that one may find that many innovative things (or indeed horrible? or horrible and innovative?) have been done or at least thought about by Greeks before. 🙂

  3. Thanks, Charles, for bringing this to our attention. What I particularly like about the excerpt you quote is the struggle of the author with the Bible as, on the one hand, an unquestioned authority and, on the other, a historical text within a past context. On the one hand we see compilers of canon law in this period happily mining the Bible for rules and reproducing its verses out of context, on the other there is an understanding that the Bible reflects a reality that has long gone. This awareness (and exegetical struggle) also predates early modernity.

    1. Thanks Sven – a very good point. Most of the rest of the text is made up of biblical quotations, but I think the argumentation is quite subtle. I was very struck by the distinction between Abel and Noah, based on who first built an altar – something the Carolingians cared about a great deal, of course. I wonder whether the anonymous author came up with that himself, or whether it’s a well-known point?

  4. You raise a fascinating point, Charles, in that the label of ‘precursorism’ seeks to establish the legitimacy of certain kinds of evidence and not others based upon a pre-established notion of ‘anachronism’. That is, the application of the label is partially constitutive of the grounds upon which that very label is supposed to have been applied – circular reasoning by any definition, which you call ‘policing the period’.

    I think that the chronological problem which you isolate has two aspects: one of continuity and the other of, for lack of a better word, ‘historical determinism’ (also ‘historical laws’, ‘nomothetic’, &c.)

    Obviously we can see that the little steam-powered toys of ancient Rome did not begin a trend which ultimately resulted in Stephenson’s rocket, while we can also acknowledge that ancient Egyptian pyramid-building was in no way informative of Mayan pyramids. However, we might be able to say that certain universal principles resulted in similar outcomes in different times and places despite complete isolation from one another – in the case of the pyramids, it is probably true that civilisations capable of mobilising great manpower tended towards building large structures, the largest of which would be wide at the base than at the summit (simple load bearing engineering), so that in this case there is no great mystery why many civilisations built pyramids or ziggurats.

    When it comes to something as specific as the poverty of the church, especially when there might be as little as a couple of centuries between examples, it becomes impossible to distinguish between what might be true continuities and what might be separate instances of ‘historical determinism’ at work.

    Even so, by this ‘historical determinist’ model, one must point out that the closer in time and space separate examples become, then the more likely it is that similar phenomena will arise, simply because the environments which produced such phenomena are similar themselves. Thus, the very point when similar but isolated ‘deterministic’ phenomena are most likely to arise (closest in time and space) is also the very point which is most likely to have historians confuse as being part of the same continuity! In any case, genetic fallacies are probably impossible to avoid.

    1. THanks Jamie for this very thoughtful comment. I quite agree about the self-reinforcing nature of ‘anachronism’.

      And I agree too about your distinction between similar phenomena that are thrown up by underlying structures, and actual tradition. As the church grew richer, it wouldn’t be surprirsing if every so often, and quite independently, people pointed out the apparent disjunction between that wealth and the apostolic texts. So I don’t want to suggest that this text was at the ‘origin’, merely that this suggests that the structures that generated later complaints were already being put in place.

      That said, the text suggests (to me anyway) that in this case, the critics are themselves church figures. If that’s right, then there was an institutional setting within which ideas could be passed down, so pehrpas we can’t rule out a “critical tradition”?

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