Tag Archives: Louis the Pious

How to become bishop: ecclesiastical liberty in the ninth century

What’s the best way to become a bishop? Writing around 835, a cleric gave an example of how it should be done. Long ago, there was a rich man from a Lyon senatorial family called Eucherius. He gave away all his money to the poor, and went to live in a remote cave. There he hid alone for many years, fasting and praying, until the bishop of Lyon died. Then divine grace revealed Eucherius to the Lyon clergy as the best replacement, so they retrieved him from his cave and ordained him as their new bishop.

The cleric who tells us this story, Florus of Lyon, isn’t very well-known today outside the circle of specialists. That’s a pity, because he’s a fascinating figure. Steeped in patristic learning, he cultivated a range of interests, including UFOs (yes, really – see ‘Florus de Lyon et les extra-terrestres’ on Pierre Chambert-Protat’s highly recommended blog). Florus could be acerbic, and he could also be radical: and his account of how Eucherius became bishop of Lyon is a case in point.

That’s because Florus didn’t tell the story to suggest that all prospective future bishops should give away their money and live hidden in remote caves waiting for their moment (a rather risky career strategy). Rather, what he wanted to emphasise was that no king had been involved in Eucherius’s appointment. And that kings had no role to play in episcopal appointments was the point of the short treatise in which Florus included this story, On the appointment of bishops, and which you can read here in a draft English translation  (to my knowledge, the first time it’s been translated).

In this treatise, Florus used the example of Eucherius (who really did become bishop of Lyon, in the fifth century) to suggest that worldly rulers never really had played a role in appointing bishops. Certainly the Christian Roman emperors hadn’t, because they were too busy ruling the entire world to bother with every single appointment. Florus described this situation as one of church freedom, ecclesiastica libertas. Afterwards, princes in ‘some kingdoms’ began to be consulted on appointments, but nothing more. Florus observed that even in his own day, not only was the pope of Rome appointed without royal interference, the pope himself ordained bishops without royal involvement.

Florus suggested that this tradition was only right and proper, because worldly rulers did not have the capacity to appoint new bishops: ordination was a gift of the Holy Spirit, not of humans. In some ways, Florus was stating the obvious here, since medieval kings never claimed that they could themselves ordain bishops. But in other ways, this was a very radical argument, since in practice kings in Florus’s day exercised a lot of influence in the appointment procedure, up to the point of choosing the successful candidate.

Indeed, lots about Florus’s Book on the election of bishops has strong resonances with later currents of what we now call Gregorian church reform. For instance, the concern with drawing a sharper distinction between the church and the world; the focus on ecclesiastical appointments; the emphasis on the church’s freedom; the emphasis on the papacy; a distinctly polemical tone; and the use of Late Antique sources in new ways, for Florus’s short text cites Cyprian at length. In this respect as in other ways (hostility to Jews and heretics), Carolingian Lyons seems to have been something of a laboratory for later ideas.[1]

However, Florus’s argument wasn’t effective in the 830s. He seems to have written the treatise to stop the Frankish emperor Louis the Pious from imposing a new bishop named Amalarius on the church of Lyon. But directly challenging the emperor proved not to be the most tactful approach, so Florus gamely switched tactics, and mounted a no-holds-barred campaign to show instead that Amalarius was a heretic – a campaign which eventually worked much better.

Yet Florus’s text about appointing bishops is preserved in four manuscripts from around 900 (thanks to Gallica you can see one of them here), showing that near-contemporaries could see and appreciate the general significance of this work, even after the immediate controversy it was written for had died down. The so-called Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century, it’s becoming ever clearer, had very deep roots.

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Image: Wikipedia (the Prague Gospels, s. IX: Cim 2, knihovně Pražské metropolitní kapituly)

[1] See the very stimulating article by Warren Pézé, ‘Amalaire et la communauté juive de Lyon. À propos de l’antijudaïsme lyonnais à l’époque carolingienne’, Francia 40 (2013), pp. 1-25, open access here

Seeking Worldly Things: the Ninth-Century Constantine the Great

Early medieval western European societies were characterised by an intrinsic tension, sometimes latent but never resolved, between the domains of the secular and the religious, set within a Christian framework – at any rate, that’s the hypothesis of this research project. The legacy of the late Roman Empire was of course essential in establishing this tension, and this blog examines one particularly interesting example of how it did so. [1]

One of the earliest occasions for arguments over the relation between clerics and external authorities was the Donatist controversy. Its origins lay in the imperial persecution of Christians in north Africa in the early fourth century. Hardly had this persecution ended than one group of Christians (known later as Donatists) accused another (who called themselves catholics) of having surrended to it, betraying the Christian faith instead of choosing glorious martyrdom. The arguments became increasingly bitter, with each group electing rival bishops. This escalation meant that after Constantine the Great’s embrace of Christianity, it was difficult for imperial authorities not to get involved.

And involved they duly became. A key source for the early stages of this dispute is a letter from Emperor Constantine himself to the catholic bishops. Stating of the Donatists that “so great a madness persists in them when with incredible arrogance they persuade themselves of things that it is not right either to say or to hear”, the letter makes it pretty clear whose side the emperor was on.[2]

But what made Constantine especially angry was the Donatists’ audacity in having appealed to him as emperor: “… I have discovered that they demand my own judgment! So strong and persevering is the wickedness of these men!” For Constantine, that meant that the Donatists “are seeking worldly things (saecularia), abandoning the heavenly (caelestia)” (a line that is unfortunately omitted in the standard English translation). The clear implication is that the Christian emperor’s judgement is worldly, that of the bishops’ heavenly.

Yet is Constantine’s letter all that it seems? Recently, the German historian Klaus Rosen has suggested not.[3] He points to various textual anomalies – possible dependence on other texts, problems with the wording, and so on – to argue that in reality it’s a forgery. An important plank of his argument is that the letter is preserved only in a single, ninth-century manuscript from Tours (Paris BnF. lat. 1711 – unfortunately not yet digitised), created some half a millennium after the supposed origin of the text it encloses. That’s not actually so unusual – lots of important Roman texts are preserved only in much later copies. But it means that strictly speaking, all we can say for certain is that the letter must have been written after c.314 (the events it describes) and before c. 850 (the date of the manuscript).

Rosen’s argument is chiefly about the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, which he thinks took place later than the current orthodoxy has it: the letter appears to contradict this by suggesting a thoroughly Christian Constantine already in 314, so it’s important for Rosen to show why it can’t be trusted. But he also ventures to connect it to disputes concerning a rather later emperor: Louis the Pious. Rosen draws particular attention to a rubric, probably written in the ninth century, which summarises the letter as follows:

“Where he [Constantine] says that the Donatist party are litigating like outsiders, denouncing, appealing, and wanting the emperor to hear them after the judgement of bishops.”[4]

Rosen never quite says that the entire letter itself was forged in the ninth century, and actually that seems to me somewhat unlikely. But he’s surely right to draw attention to the manuscript transmission, and to the rubric showing that the letter was being read, not just transcribed. In other words, an important context for the letter – and if we are to be hyper-rigorous, the only absolutely secure one – is ninth-century Tours, when it was copied out and interpreted; and that, at a time when (some) bishops were moving towards an attempt to depose one of Constantine’s imperial successors, on the grounds of the superiority of episcopal judgement, just as (Pseudo-)Constantine had set out.

The point is often and rightly made that much of the intellectual heritage of the late Roman empire was preserved thanks to Carolingian scriptoria. But what Rosen and the letter of Constantine encourage us think about is what these scribes themselves thought they were doing. Were they selflessly saving texts for 21st-century historians of late Rome, or were they more concerned with relating this material to their own ninth-century present? The answer is of course probably the latter: and that, I suggest, should give us pause for thought.

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[1] Many thanks to Conrad Leyser for bringing the text on which this blog concentrates to my attention.

[2] Translation in Optatus: Against the Donatists, ed. and tr. M. Edwards (Liverpool, 1997).

[3] Klaus Rosen, Constantin der Grosse, die Christen und der Donatistenstreit 312-314. Eine Untersuchung zu Optatus von Mileve, Appendix V, und zum Verhältnis von Staat und Kirche im 4. Jahrhundert (Paderborn, 2011).

[4] “ubi dixit quia pars Donati quomodo forenses sic litigant ut denuntient et appellent et imperatorem desiderent audire post episcoporum iudicata”.