“Is not every Christian emperor also a priest?”

Looking back from the twenty-first century, we naturally tend to arrange the past into different sections. The historians who work on late ninth-century Carolingian Francia, for instance, find themselves in a different field from those who work on the seventh-century Roman Empire. And understandably so, since the political and cultural set-up of these societies were quite distinct.

Often, however, medieval texts moved across time and space in ways that challenge these subdivisions, layering different histories upon one another. A good example is a work in Greek about the imperial trial in 655 of the firebrand monk Maximus the Confessor. This text, known as the Relatio Motionis, was written by sympathisers of Maximus, and it has some remarkably clear and unequivocal statements about the secular status of the emperor.

For instance, it records that Maximus was challenged with the question ‘Is not every Christian emperor also a priest?’. To this Maximus calmly explained that the answer was: ‘No, he is not. For he does not stand by the altar, nor does he lift up the bread after it has been sanctified, saying Holy of Holies. He does not baptize, nor does he create the chrism, nor does he make bishops or priests or deacons, nor anoint churches, nor does he carry the signs of priesthood, that is the pallium and the Gospels, although he does wear the signs of empire, the crown and the purple.’ So much for Caesaropapism.

Now, the Relatio Motionis is usually read as evidence for debates in seventh-century Byzantium, which it surely is. Yet the Greek account of Maximus’s trial was also translated into Latin in ninth-century Rome by a well-known cleric named Anastasius the Librarian. Moreover, the only surviving manuscript of this translation – Paris BnF. Lat. 5095 – was made not in Rome, but in ninth-century Francia.

This manuscript has usually been evaluated as useful evidence firstly for reconstructing Maximus’s original statements and secondly for understanding Anastasius’s translation campaign, but as always in medieval history, it’s worth looking at manuscripts and not just through them. In a recent article, I’ve argued that Paris 5095 was copied at the behest of Bishop Hincmar of Laon, who was interested in Maximus’s persecution by rulers, and how he handled it. Hincmar had been deposed as bishop by King Charles the Bald in 871, but did not gracefully accept his new circumstances and settle into retirement. Instead he fought against his deposition, accusing Charles the Bald of having acted tyrannically. I argued that the Paris 5095 manuscript, including the trial of Maximus the Confessor, was part of the bishop’s efforts to stage a come-back, which resulted in qualified success in 878.

In other words, a Latin translation made in Rome of a Greek text was being read with great interest in Francia in the 870s, as part of debates over the nature of Carolingian kingship and its relation to the church. To what extent can and should we therefore read the Latin Maximus as a Carolingian text, as well as a Roman and indeed Byzantine one?

For a fuller version of this argument (with references to further reading), see C. West, ‘”And how, if you are a Christian, can you hate the emperor?” Reading a Seventh-Century Scandal in Carolingian Francia’, in Karina Kellermann, Alheydis Plassmann and Christian Schwermann, eds., Criticising the Ruler in pre-modern societies – possibilities, chances and methods (Bonn, 2019), 411-430: open access version https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:27953/

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